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The Song of Solomon


Song of Solomon 7:6-9            1st Timothy 4:1-5    Matthew 19:10-12


I: — The book of Proverbs tells us there are four things too wonderful, too mysterious, for the human mind to comprehend: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the seas, and the way of a man with a maid. (Prov. 30:19) The Song of Solomon is a collection of love-poems celebrating the way of a man with a maid, celebrating romantic love. Some of these love-poems were recited regularly at Hebrew weddings.         While the poems might be the occasion of embarrassment today, they were clearly no embarrassment to the people who wrote them and no embarrassment to the wedding-guests who heard them, and no embarrassment to God who gave them.

They might be the occasion of embarrassment at a church wedding today in that we tend to confuse eroticism with pornography and find ourselves rightly upset at pornography.  We ought to distinguish clearly between eroticism and pornography. Pornography is the exploitation of the erotic. Pornography is the vulgarisation, the debasement, of the erotic.

Pornography has become a huge industry today. How huge?   Pornography is the single largest use to which the internet is put. Despite the billions of dollars gambled through slot machines and casinos, the “porn” industry generates a cash flow ten times greater.  Psychologists have long recognized that pornography is more addictive than heroin. Pornography therefore should be abhorred.

At the same time, the erotic is a gift of God. “The way of a man with a maid” is something for which our Israelite foreparents praised God when they worshipped. Because Israel knew the erotic to be God’s gift, therefore good in itself, Israel wasn’t embarrassed around the erotic even as Israel recognized and repudiated the dehumanisation that arises whenever something as deep in us as the erotic is divorced from human intimacy, divorced from the profoundest encounter of two persons in a union whose mystery is so deep that it can never be adequately described.

While Israel rightly abhorred reducing the profoundest encounter of man and women to animal instinct-gratification (we should never forget that David’s earthly life kept going downhill after his affair with Bathsheba, even as we should remember that last year in Canada 100,000 people were diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases), Israel nonetheless remained as unashamed at the beauty of the way of a man with a maid as it was unashamed at the beauty of mountains and stars. To this day Orthodox Jewish couples have intercourse on Sabbath Eve, and refer to it circumlocutiously as “Sabbath blessings”.  Reflecting the Jewish conviction of the sanctity of marriage, Rabbi Akiba said, “The whole world isn’t as worthy as the day on which the Song of Solomon was given to Israel ”. Another rabbi insisted that anyone who looked upon these love-poems as disgusting – such a person had no share in the world to come.  “Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved”, says the man in the poems. Longing for him the woman says, “O that his left hand were under my head, and his right hand embraced me.”

Because the church has always had difficulty owning its Hebrew root, the church has traditionally not known what to do with the Song of Solomon.  For this reason the church has traditionally tried to turn the Song of Solomon into an allegory. An allegory is a story in which every item in the story represents something else.

For instance, some people maintained that the love-poems are an allegory of God’s love for his people Israel .

Another allegory was (is) that the lover in the poems is God, while the beloved is the individual Christian.         (Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote fine hymns such as “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts”; he thought this.)

Still another allegory: the lover is God, the beloved is the Virgin Mary.

Martin Luther was the earthiest of the earthy, yet somehow his earthiness deserted him here, leaving him saying that the love-poems celebrate the loyalty that King Solomon’s subjects have for Solomon himself.

When Bernard of Clairvaux read verse thirteen of chapter one – “My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts” – Bernard couldn’t stand the thought that the verse might mean exactly what it says, and so he allegorised it this way: the bag of myrrh (costly spices) is Jesus Christ crucified, and the two breasts mentioned in the text represent the two terrorists crucified on either side of Jesus.

All such allegories, of course, aim at denying what the love-poems want us to know; namely, that the mystery and wonder of the deepest encounter of man and woman is good because it’s God’s gift.

It’s plain that asceticism in principle is foreign to the Hebrew mind. Paul, a Hebrew thinker himself, writes to Timothy, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” Asceticism in principle is simply sub-Christian.  Paul tells the Christians in Colosse that they mustn’t heed ascetic teachers who wag their finger and say, “Don’t handle; don’t taste; don’t touch”. “Disregard them”, the apostle urges; “their teaching is sub-Christian”.  A woman from a distant city visiting one of my previous congregations spoke to me about her situation as a single person (it’s never easy to be single) and indicated she would very much like to be married (this is understandable) – to a clergyman, no less.  “A clergyman?” I remarked; “Why do you specify a clergyman?” “Because clergymen are so sexless”, she intoned.  Buried in her mind, obviously, was this: sexlessness is a Christian ideal. Truly spiritual people, godly people, holy people, are sexless.  Such a notion any Israelite would find incomprehensible.

Because the Israelite mind is always earthy, the bible is always earthy.  At the same time, the bible is always modest.  Modesty and earthiness together fend off two sub-Christian distortions. Modesty fends off vulgarity; earthiness fends off asceticism.  “Abraham knew Sarah, and Sarah conceived.”   Everyone knows what’s meant.         The reality of love-making is acknowledged and its delight upheld; at the same time, it isn’t described in minute detail in order to entertain the prurient. Everywhere in scripture realistic earthiness is joined to fitting modesty.

We must never think that the bible’s frankness encourages an “anything goes” attitude.   Quite the contrary. Hebrew conviction never condones wantonness; never approves illicit sexual behaviour; never winks at violations of God’s command.  Hebrew conviction forthrightly declares that God will not fail to punish any and all violations of his command, which command is given for our blessing. When Israel was surrounded first by the Canaanite nations and then by the Babylonians, Israel was always pressured and therefore always tempted to set aside the command of God and abandon itself to whatever its neighbours were doing.  The Hebrew prophets were unrelenting in their insistence that pagan sexual practices were degrading because dehumanising, and dehumanising because violations of the command of God, and violations of the command of God just because God’s command is God himself in person protecting his people.

The Hebrew mind, Hebrew heart, knows that erotic intimacy is to be reserved for human intimacy, and the expression of human intimacy, according to God’s command and counsel, is a union between a man and a woman that admits no rivals, aims at lifelong faithfulness, and is therefore to be terminated only by death.


II: — Plainly, then, for the Hebrew mind marriage is good.  But it isn’t the good. The kingdom of God is the gift. Scripture speaks of marriage as gift. But it isn’t the gift.  When Paul exults, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (2nd Cor. 9:16 ) he means Jesus Christ and him only.

Everyone – without distinction or qualification – is invited to flee the world of defiant disobedience and joyfully enter the kingdom of God . Everyone is summoned to embrace – without hesitation or reservation – the only Saviour we can ever have.   The kingdom of God is now and ever will be the good.  Jesus Christ is now and ever will be the gift.

Marriage is a good; marriage is a gift. And this good, this gift, we might as well admit right now, is not for everyone.         We should say at the same time that marriage isn’t essential to our humanness. To be unmarried isn’t to be humanly deficient or humanly defective.  In a sermon several years ago in Schomberg I said that all humans are gender-specific: to be human is to be either male or female.  I said too that gender-specificity is related to gender-complementarity.  Not only am I male (only), I’m male only in the context of female. Females are female only in the context of males. Since I can’t be human without being male, and since I can’t be male except in the context of females, therefore my gender opposite is essential to my humanness. True.  At the same time I relate to any number of women, and must relate to any number of women, in many different ways without being married to them.   Gender-complementarity is essential to our humanness; marriage is not essential.

Jesus wasn’t married.  Yet the gospels tell us that Jesus never fled women.  On the contrary he was always found with women, both single and married (we do well to note); he related warmly to them, and related to them in ways that defied long-standing social custom, even as he never transgressed the command of his Father with respect to the women to whom he wasn’t married.  No one, I trust, wants to suggest that our Lord’s humanness was deficient or defective in any respect.

Moses was married; Elijah was not.  Hosea was married; Jeremiah was not.  Peter was certainly married; Paul appears not to have been or else he was a widower and therefore wasn’t married during the time of his apostolate. In no case do we say that those who married were superior to those who didn’t marry or were no longer married.

Overlooked too often is the simple fact that Genesis 2 leads on to Genesis 3.  Genesis 2: “It is not good for man to be a lone….I will make him a helpmate.” Genesis 3, however, discusses the fall of humankind.  Genesis 2 speaks of the goodness of the creation, a goodness that never disappears entirely. Genesis 3, however, speaks of the distortion of the creation, of the disorder throughout the cosmos. In the wake of the fall, with its distortion and disorder and distress, we must admit that marriage won’t be for everyone, and this for several reasons.

In the first place, many people who want with all their heart to marry and should marry are deprived of the opportunity to marry. They are victims of sheer misfortune. Think of the European nations at the end of the Great War, and then at the end of World War II. Since twenty or thirty million young men had perished, there were now twenty or thirty million young women who would never have the chance to marry.  Canada , a country with a small population, lost 70,000 men in the Great War alone. Those 70,000 were all of marriageable age. The women their age who remained in Canada ; whom were they supposed to marry when the war was over?  Many people are deprived of the opportunity to marry through sheer, simple bad luck. For this reason “old maid” is a dreadful expression and should never be uttered. “Old maid” jokes aren’t jokes; they aren’t funny at all.  I despise them as much as I despise the racist “joke” or the anti-Semitic “joke”.

There’s another reason some people don’t marry. They are psychologically unable to sustain a marriage.  When discussing the matter of eunuchs – men who aren’t going to marry – Jesus says some men were born congenitally damaged and therefore won’t marry. He also says that some men were made eunuchs by others; that is, they suffered irreparable physical injury and therefore aren’t suited for marriage.

We should admit right now that in a fallen world some people are going to be born with defects of body and mind that render them unsuited for marriage.  And in a fallen world some people, in the course of moving from infancy to adulthood, are going to sustain psychological damage of such a sort, and to such an extent, that they ought not to marry.  To be sure, all of us have some psychological quirks and personality peculiarities. Still, there are psychological quirks and personality peculiarities that render some people unsuited for marriage. This is not to say that such people are greater sinners.  It’s merely to recognize that marriage requires certain personality traits which, when absent, make it wiser not to marry.  Among other things, marriage requires enormous accommodation and adaptability. Marriage requires two people to flex themselves around each other.  Marriage requires a huge elasticity that allows us to be closer to one person than we are to anyone else, and distant enough from the same person as to allow him or her to thrive without being smothered.

Rudeness, slight, insult; when it comes from someone we don’t know we’re scarcely aware of it. The same rudeness or slight or insult; when it comes from a friend it wounds. When it comes from our spouse it’s lethal – unless in the next instant we have sufficient resilience and elasticity and flexibility to get the marriage past a jolt that will prove fatal in a brittle person or brittle relationship.

Recently a young woman approached me who is manic-depressive, with episodes of out-and-out psychosis.         (That is, episodically she’s deranged.)  She has married a fellow who is schizophrenic, and he too has psychotic episodes. She suffers from a major affective disorder; he from a major cognitive disorder. She told me she didn’t think her marriage would survive.  Does anyone doubt her?

When people volunteer for the submarine service the navy doesn’t jump and down for joy, “Are we ever glad to see you: there are never enough volunteers for the submarine service.  Step this way immediately.”  Instead the navy first assesses the volunteers to see whether they have the psychological configuration required in those who have to live in cramped quarters under immense pressure for long periods of time. There’s no disgrace in learning that you don’t have the psychological configuration essential to living in a submarine.  Jesus says that in a fallen world some men are eunuchs either on account of congenital malformation or on account of brutalisation.  Such men don’t marry. As much can be said about psychological damage.  Such people shouldn’t marry.

And then Jesus gives a third reason as to why some men are “eunuchs”. “These men”, says our Lord, “have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”. Plainly he’s speaking metaphorically here.  He means that there are men who forego marriage inasmuch as they have a vocation from God that entails their not marrying.         In the church catholic we call this “vocational celibacy”.  Scripture upholds marriage as a good, a great good.         At the same time, scripture declares that when the kingdom of God collides with a disordered world, some of the kingdom’s servants are asked to forego marriage because of a special task to which God assigns them in the midst of the world’s disorder.  In other words, just as marriage is gift and calling, celibacy is gift and calling.

Protestants usually flounder here.  Roman Catholics, on the other hand, have less difficulty understanding this point, since Roman Catholic clergy have remained unmarried for centuries. My problem with the Roman Catholic understanding is that it relates vocational celibacy too one-sidedly to priests and nuns.  In truth there are lay Christians who are never going to be priests or nuns who are nonetheless called to an expression of Christian service that renders marriage inappropriate.  Think of people whom God has summoned to a work that is extraordinarily dangerous or difficult, extraordinarily disruptive of all that marriage requires.

We must understand too that celibacy is significant even for us who do marry.  Celibacy is a sign, not just a sign for unmarried people themselves but a sign for all Christians, whether married or unmarried; it’s a witness, a reminder to all Christians that obedience to God requires self-renunciation. The same self-renunciation isn’t required of all Christians, but self-renunciation of some sort is required of all Christians.  After all, our Lord insists that all his disciples, all his followers without exception, have been appointed to cross-bearing of some kind.

Celibacy is a reminder that specific kinds of service in God’s kingdom require specific expressions of obedience.         Think of the Sisters of Charity, the order established by the late Mother Teresa. These sisters assist dying destitutes in India . There’s also a chapter of the Sisters of Charity in Toronto . What do they do in Toronto ? They assist terribly deranged women in downtown Toronto who are otherwise friendless. These sisters render a kingdom service on behalf of the world that married people simply cannot render.

This isn’t to say that celibacy is a higher calling than marriage. There is no hierarchy of callings in God’s kingdom.         There are only diverse callings.  Married people are called to serve God in such a way that their marriage is characterised by a faithfulness and caring and self-giving that are signs of God’s faithfulness and caring and self-giving.  Unmarried people are called to serve God in such a way that their vocational celibacy reminds the world that the world is vastly sicker than the world thinks itself to be, and extraordinary service must be rendered if the world is to be healed.

Present-day Christians have difficulty understanding what the apostolic church knew well; namely, the self-renunciation to which God summons us varies from Christian to Christian. The kingdom-service to which God calls us requires greater financial renunciation for some, less for others.  It will require geographical dislocation for some but not for others. It will mean special education or training for some, but not for all.  In other words, there are only two issues that any Christian has to settle. One is discernment; specifically, discernment of God’s will for me. The other is obedience. Discernment plus obedience equals discipleship.


In the first part of the sermon I indicated that people such as Bernard of Clairvaux missed the point when they allegorised the Song of Solomon and turned it into a secret story about Christ’s love for his beloved people. Allegorisers like Bernard, I said, were wrong, since the Song of Solomon is really about God’s gift of romantic love.

At the same time, since marriage is the commonest metaphor in scripture for faith; since scripture speaks of Christ as groom and his beloved people as bride; since scripture uses the metaphor of adultery to speak of the unfaithfulness of God’s people, allegorisers like Bernard of Clairvaux weren’t entirely wrong.

The last word today belongs to Christ Jesus our Lord: “Let anyone accept this who can.”


                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           January 2006