The Beginning of Love

Proverbs teaches skill in living in general. Song of Songs focuses on skill in living in a specific aspect of life—the exquisite “love” between husband and wife. This love is exquisite because it is beautiful as well as delicate, for due to fallen human nature it is easily “broken,” though “reparable.” This is particularly why wisdom is needed here. Since the fear of God is the “beginning” or foundation of wisdom in general, it is also the foundation of wisdom in love. It will soon become clear why the fear of God is the foundation of love.

This kind of love is unique. Even the love between parent and child, though as strong and deep in terms of relational intimacy, is still of a different kind. For marital love is consummated through sexual intimacy, which is unnatural and forbidden between parent and child. So sexuality is integral to the love between husband and wife. We have seen that even marriage is defined by God Himself as a man and a woman becoming “one-flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Thus marital love has a built-in sexual expression, which we call “sexual love,” a term that is particularly useful when we need to distinguish it from “sexual lust.”

The need to make this distinction is real because even marital sex may be based on lust rather than love. This is due to “the inability to [truly] love [even] the one you desire…. Some people throw away the possibility to have what they say they want most—sexual excitement and true love—because they find it hard to love the person they're in lust with” (adapting Resnick 2012: 11). So Song of Songs is all the more needed to supplement Proverbs because of the reality of sexual lust even in a marriage.

Celebration of human sexuality

Traditionally the Song has been understood as an allegory of the love between Yahweh (“the LORD”) and Israel (for the Jews), or the love between Jesus and the Church (for Christians). This allegorical interpretation has been rejected by most Biblical scholars, and replaced by a natural interpretation that reads the book plainly as a song about the love between a man and a woman. The discovery of ancient Egyptian love songs (see samples below) demonstrates that there was indeed a distinct literary genre in the Old Testament world that expresses the love between a man and a woman. We can therefore be confident that Song of Songs is a love song that celebrates human sexuality in an explicit and erotic way.

It celebrates human sexuality, but this is somewhat veiled in translation. For instance, right at the beginning of the Song we read, “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your lovemaking [translated as ‘love’ in Bibles] is better than wine” (1:2). The Hebrew word translated here as “lovemaking” occurs with this meaning only eight times in the Old Testament, five of which are in Song of Songs itself (1:2,4; 4:10a,10b; 7:12; Proverbs 7:18a; Ezekiel 16:8; 23:17). Note that lovemaking is compared to intoxication (with wine), which is also the case in the Egyptian love songs (Simpson 1973: 311):

I kiss her,
her lips open,
and I am drunk
without a beer.

This brings us to a similar comparison in Proverbs, which confirms that the lovemaking that is “better than wine” in Song of Songs is not limited to kissing: “And rejoice in the wife of your youth [and] let her breasts satisfy you at all times, be intoxicated always with her love [and not] be intoxicated with an adulteress, and embrace the bosom of an outsider” (Proverbs 5:18-20).

Another indication that the Song celebrates human sexuality is the occurrence of poems called waṣf (Arabic word meaning “description”), in which the beauty of the body of the lover is sensually described through figurative speech (4:1-7; 5:10-16; 6:5-7; 7:1-9; also found in Egyptian love songs). Two of the poems even include “your two breasts” in the description (4:5; 7:3). And the term waṣf was originally used to refer to traditional wedding songs of Syrian peasants similar to the four poems in the Song. And these are “songs where the groom and the bride would describe one another’s physical beauty as a prelude to lovemaking” (Longman 2001: 140-41).

A book that celebrates human sexuality is not out of place in the Bible. For sexuality is not incompatible with spirituality. We have just seen that even Proverbs, which teaches how to live in the fear of the LORD, exhorts a man to celebrate sexual enjoyment with “the wife of your youth.” And it teaches that God, who created human sexuality, has so designed it that a (God-fearing) man is able to be so “intoxicated” with his wife that he does not even have appetite for adultery. This then protects him from violating the Eighth Commandment and thus from being destroyed because of it.

To ensure that all this happens, Proverbs on the one hand “disciplines” a “(male) child” to recognize the blessing of being a God-fearing man and the blight of being an adulterer. On the other hand it instructs him to recognize the blessing of marrying a God-fearing woman (Proverbs 31:10-31) and the blight of marrying one who is not (Proverbs 14:1; 25:24). And it gives the most appropriate warning in this regard: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD, she is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). Hence Proverbs already indicates that the fear of God is the foundation of love, which also means, as designed by God, spirituality is fundamental to sexuality.

Also, inherent in the reference, “the wife of your youth,” is the teaching that sexual enjoyment within marriage can last long after the honeymoon (in their youth), even after both have become grandparents. Therefore it is only natural that there be a wisdom book that teaches a man and his wife how to be, and how to stay, in love. Hence a love song that celebrates human sexuality is entirely “in-place” in the Bible.

Song of Songs celebrates human sexuality in an explicit and erotic way, but it is neither vulgar nor obscene. This is achieved through the use of imageries to describe lovemaking. We have seen how intoxication with “wine” is used to describe the emotions involved in lovemaking. The word “vineyard” may refer to a literal vineyard or figuratively to the woman’s body (see 1:6; 8:11-12). Likewise the word “garden” is repeatedly used to refer to her body (e.g., 4:12). Descriptions of activities in the “garden” are therefore figurative descriptions of activities of lovemaking. This poetic way of describing sexual intercourse explicitly and erotically is also found in Egyptian love songs (Simpson 1973: 308-309):

I am your best girl:
I belong to you like an acre of land
which I have planted
with flowers and every sweet-smelling grass.

Pleasant is the channel through it
which your hand dug out
for refreshing ourselves with the breeze,
a happy place for walking
with your hand in my hand.

Are explicit and literal references to “breasts” in the Song (e.g., 4:5; cf. Proverbs 5:19) then obscene and vulgar? Some readers may feel uncomfortable, but it is a matter of cultural sensitivity which is relative. Consider these lines from an Egyptian love song (Simpson 1973: 298):

Take then my breast:
      for you its gift overflows.
Better indeed is one day in your arms ...
      then a hundred thousand [anywhere] on earth.

There are writings from the ancient Biblical world that are indeed vulgar and obscene by any standard. However, this Egyptian love song may still not be considered vulgar or obscene in the culture that produced it because the explicit and literal description of sexual activity here is relatively tame. In Song of Songs even a sexual description this mild would still be couched discreetly through imageries. Explicit and literal descriptions of lovemaking in the Song do not go beyond kissing.

The question then arises: Is there really a need at all to describe lovemaking in an explicit and erotic way? This was undoubtedly the main reason for the avoidance of the natural interpretation and the preference for the allegorical interpretation.

Explicit description of sex that is vulgar and obscene, as in pornography (which as a rule is not about sex within a happy marriage), may actually be repulsive rather than erotic (arouses sexual feelings). Even when erotic it will be sexual lust rather than sexual love that is being aroused. Since even sex between husband and wife may still be a gratification of lust and not the consummation of love, we need an authoritative source that tastefully recreates the feeling of sexual love through poetry to distinguish it from sexual lust, in order to teach how to cultivate it in a marriage.

Is Song of Songs then for singles too? This may be debatable in a premodern, sexually conservative, culture. But in modernity, even teenagers can benefit from an exposure to what sexual love feels like, to counter the sexual lust that they have been experiencing. Unlike the feeling of sexual lust, the feeling of sexual love does not pressure one to gratify it immediately. For “Lust can’t wait to get, whereas love can wait to give” (Kendall 2013: 211). Thus one may “fall” into the temptations of sexual lust, but not into the “temptations” of sexual love. A single person who has had a feel of how exquisite sexual love is may make a commitment to wait, so as to “make-love” only in the context of marriage.

Anticipation of sexual intimacy

The Song has only two characters, supported by a Chorus (“Daughters of Jerusalem”): the man, referred to as King Solomon; and the woman, referred to as the Shulammite (6:13). The man is depicted as the king as well as a shepherd. This is normal for this kind of literature—“pastoral love poetry” (Ryken, Wilhoit and Longman 1998: 806). Hence the “abrupt shifts in … a lover’s immediate persona [between king and shepherd] do not necessarily point to literary incoherence or multiplicity of characters” (Murphy 1990: 47). So the Song is not about a love triangle involving the king, the woman and her shepherd boyfriend.

It is a series of poems celebrating sexual intimacy between the two characters as husband and wife. Commentators who see premarital sex in the Song fail to, or do not, recognize the book as Hebrew Scripture. Daniel Estes (2010: 295) argues,

if the Song were to celebrate premarital sexual activity, it would fly in the face of the rest of the OT, in which such behaviour is proscribed. Schwab (2002: 132) observes rightly, “The attitude of the Hebrews towards virginity and marriage would prejudice a reader of the Song of Songs to see in it a celebration of wedded bliss, not of premarital sex…. The loss of virginity outside of marriage is not something that the Hebrews would have celebrated.”

And it is actually not difficult to read the Song as a celebration of wedded bliss, not of premarital sex. All it takes is the willingness to recognize that descriptions of sexual activity prior to the wedding scene (3:6-11) are expressions of anticipation and not descriptions of participation. After all the Song begins with an outright expression of anticipation (of the wedding night): “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! … Take me with you and let us hurry! The king has brought me into his chambers. We will rejoice in you and be glad, we will extol your lovemaking more than wine” (1:2-4). As will be explained below, the perfect tense, “has brought,” does not here describe something that has actually happened; like the expressions just before it (“May he … Take me … let us …”), it is also an expression of desire and hence anticipation (cf. Barbiero 2011: 57).

And before any description of sexual activity begins (in 2:4), the Song describes poetically how the couple adore each other and how she longs for intimacy with him (1:5-2:3; cf. Estes 2010: 308-20). It would then be natural for expressions of this longing and thus of anticipation to follow.

Consider then the first description of sexual activity (prior to the wedding scene): “He has brought [perfect tense] me to the ‘house of wine’ [place for (sexual) intoxication; ‘his chambers’ in 1:4], and his look [usually translated ‘banner,’ something we look at] on me is (sexual) love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apricots [both were considered aphrodisiacs], for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me [a lovemaking position]” (2:4-6; cf. Hess 2005: 78-79). This is obviously an elaboration of the above “perfect-tense” anticipation of the wedding night (1:2-4).

Further along we read: “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn (to me), my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the split mountains” (2:17). The context leading up to this verse (2:8-16) indicates that it describes sexual activity and the “split mountains” refer to her breasts (Garrett 1993: 393-96). Though lovemaking is indeed described before the wedding,

It should be remembered, nevertheless, that Song of Songs is lyric poetry and it must be read as such. It is not a historical narrative employing realistic description; rather it uses poetic imagery to communicate its message through allusion. As poetry, it aims to re-create an experience in the reader rather than simply report the experience… [so that] the reader will vicariously enjoy what the characters in the book actually experience (Estes 2005: 396).

This means poetry is not only more concerned with recreating feelings than with recounting facts, but it also has “poetic license” to describe what does not happen as though it does. This explains the perfect tense above. So the poetic descriptions of sexual activity before the wedding, unlike those after, may be intended to recreate in the reader the characters’ experience of longing for sexual intimacy, and not their experience of engaging in sexual relations (not even in their imagination, as this would mean fantasizing about something prohibited). Thus “sexual activities” that the characters “experience” before the wedding may actually be the feeling of anticipation, and not the realization, of sexual intimacy.

Consider what happens when we fail to recognize poetic license in Isaiah’s speech which quotes God saying that “I have appointed [perfect tense] watchmen” to keep reminding Him day and night, thus giving Him “no rest,” until He fulfills what He has promised (Isaiah 62:6-7). We will then read it woodenly as God confessing (through recounting facts) that He is an absent-minded compulsive procrastinator! So though expressed through the perfect tense, what is described did not actually happen, not even in the imagination (of God). God is actually reassuring His people (through recreating feelings) that He will not fail to fulfill what He has promised. So if sensitivity to poetic license is necessary even when reading a (prophetic) speech, how much more when reading a (wisdom) song?

Hence, “The [poetic] language in chapters 1-3, though it certainly expresses their intense longing for sexual intimacy [especially when they anticipate their wedding], does not require the consummation of their sexual relationship prior to their wedding night” (Estes 2010: 295). On the other hand recognizing that Song of Songs is Hebrew Scripture does require that no consummation happened then. In any case, compared to the description of lovemaking after the wedding scene, the language in chapters 1-3 gives the impression of describing the foreplay only, which serves perfectly the purpose of expressing the characters’ feelings of anticipation.

Thus Song of Songs, a celebration of sexual intimacy between husband and wife, can then be outlined as follows:

Before Wedding: Anticipation of Sexual Intimacy (1:2-3:5)
Wedding: Consummation of Sexual Intimacy (3:6-5:1)
After Wedding: Continuation of Sexual Intimacy (5:2-8:4)
Children’s Wedding: Retrospection on Sexual Intimacy (8:5-14)

Consummation of sexual intimacy

The wedding scene (3:6-11) marks the key turning point in the love relationship between the man and the woman. Just prior to this, we read a recurring dream of the woman in which she loses and finds her beloved and then would not let him go (3:1-4). It thus expresses her (perhaps unfounded) fear of losing her beloved as the wedding draws near, which shows how much she desires him and intimacy with him (cf. Genesis 3:16). While the focus here is relational intimacy, sexual intimacy is undoubtedly on the horizon (3:4; cf. 8:2-3,5) as both come in the same package for a man and woman about to be married.

The first waṣf (4:1-6) occurs (only) right after the wedding scene and is indeed a prelude to lovemaking. Following this waṣf the man (groom) continues to praise the beauty of the woman and repeatedly (five times) calls her his “bride” (4:7-15). He not only refers to her as a “garden,” with all its sexual connotations, but also as a “spring” (4:12; cf. 4:15), undoubtedly a parallel reference to her as a source of sexual intoxication to the man (cf. Proverbs 5:15-20).

It is significant that the groom refers to his bride as “a locked garden” and “a sealed spring” (4:12). Recognizing Song of Songs as Hebrew Scripture, this can only mean that as a “garden” and a “spring” she has so far been inaccessible. “The point is not that she is locked to all others but open to him. Rather, it is that she is as of yet still virginal and out of even his reach”; so now on their wedding night, by stressing how sexually inaccessible she has been, “He [indirectly] appeals to her to open herself to him” (Garrett and House 2004: 196).

So she gives the invitation: “Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits” (4:16). Consummation of the marriage and thus of sexual intimacy follows: “I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice, I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk” (5:1ab). And the Chorus exclaims: “Eat, friends! Drink, be intoxicated, Oh lovers!” (5:1c)…….

Continuation of Sexual Intimacy

This climax of the Song is followed by two extended passages on the continuation of sexual intimacy, which take up most of the rest of the Song.

The first passage highlights how exquisite (focus: delicate) love is (5:2-6:13). It begins with another dream in which the wife symbolically “loses” and cannot “find” her husband, and gets “beaten up” instead. The cause of her predicament—not physical separation but painful alienation—is friction in the marriage (whether mere misunderstanding or outright conflict) that led to disruption in both relational and sexual intimacy. This highlights how delicate love is, but broken love is reparable. So he is eventually “found”—joyful reconciliation and thus continuation of both relational and sexual intimacy (cf. Estes 2010: 367-71; 378-80; 388-90).

The second passage highlights how exquisite (focus: beautiful) love is (7:1-8:4). It begins with a waṣf which contains “the most explicitly erotic” verses in the Song (Estes 2005: 429). Consider this description: “Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit.’ Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the fragrance of your breath like apricots” (7:7-8).

The entire passage is summed up by the wife’s declaration: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (7:10; cf. 2:16; 6:3). We have seen her strong desire for him and intimacy with him before the wedding (3:1-4). Now, as their love matures following painful alienation and joyful reconciliation, the focus is on his “desire” for her and intimacy with her.

Recall that the Hebrew word here for “desire” occurs only three times in the Old Testament. The first occurrence refers to Eve’s “desire” for intimacy with her husband despite the pain of childbirth, and even though because of sin he would “rule over” her (Genesis 3:16). The second refers to Sin’s “desire” for control over Cain, which in this case led to murder (Genesis 4:7-8). What then is the implication of the third use of the word here? “By electing to use this rare word, the verse in the Song is really redirecting the [application of the] Genesis text and completely transforming it” (Lavoie 2000: 79; cited in Estes 2005: 432).

In other words, desire for intimacy is God’s design for both husband and wife, which is to be reclaimed from the effects of sin. And this requires the fear of God. This then highlights how beautiful love is when the oneness God intends for husband and wife is reclaimed through fearing Him.

Retrospection on Sexual Intimacy

The Song concludes with retrospection on sexual intimacy. This final passage (8:5-14) begins with, “Who is this coming up from the wilderness?” (8:5a). This repeats verbatim the question that introduced the wedding scene (3:6). In both cases the “who” refers to the woman (Hess 2005: 109). There the “question” served as “a rhetorical device for an exclamation at her dramatic entrance on the [wedding] scene” (Estes 2010: 339; drawing on Bloch and Bloch 1995: 159). Here, by its verbatim repetition, it serves as a rhetorical device to recall the wedding scene. In fact she is now “leaning on her beloved,” which “may well be a charming picture of the couple in old age reminiscing about their journey together to intimacy” (Estes 2010: 407).

The description of sexual intimacy that follows (8:5b), in which she describes how she “awakened (sexually)” her husband, is thus a recollection of their (first) lovemaking on their wedding night. In our outline of Song of Songs this section is labelled Children’s Wedding because it is natural for a couple still in love to reminisce about their own wedding and journey to intimacy on the wedding night of their children.

She also recalls that when they consummated their marriage, she passionately expressed her desire: “Place me as a seal over your heart, as a seal on your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. Many waters cannot extinguish love, nor can floods drown it. If a man were to give all his wealth for love, it would be utterly scorned” (8:6-7).

In the ancient world a seal is used to identify its owner. Therefore, “A seal is a highly valued, precious item from which the bearer would never want to part. The Shulammite wishes to be permanently over his heart, the seat of his affections, and on his arm, the source of his strength. Just as death does not let go of those it has claimed, so the lovers possess each other forever” (Davidson 2007: 592). This commitment has seen them through painful alienation and joyful reconciliation as their inextinguishable love matures in their journey together to intimacy.

Before the Song ends with the finale, there is a flashback further into the woman’s younger days (8:8-12). Her brothers were concerned whether she would behave as a “wall” (sexually inaccessible) or as a “door” (sexually accessible) before marriage (Estes 2010: 411-13). And she assured them that she would be a “wall,” and we saw that she did remain a “locked garden” and a “sealed spring” until her wedding night. The unexpected inclusion of this story in the reminiscence of their journey to intimacy implies that chastity is crucial to future sexual intimacy with one’s spouse, especially for the woman.

Finally, in the finale (8:13-14) we hear the man saying to his wife: “let me hear it (your voice).” This means even in old age “he finds delight in conversing with the woman he loves.” He still longs for relational intimacy with his wife. And she responds: “Come quickly, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices” (cf. “on the split mountains” in 2:17). This is an invitation to sexual intimacy as it “synthesizes [and repeats] the language [and sexual imageries] of 2:17 and 4:10 [where ‘spice’ parallels ‘wine’]” (Estes 2010: 417).

It does not feel like a finale unless we recognize its implication: “Human love knows no definitive consummation, no absolute fulfillment. Loving relationships are never complete; there are always ongoing, always reaching for more. Regardless of the quality or frequency of lovemaking, there is always a measure of yearning present” (Bergant 2001: 105; cited in Estes 2010: 418).

Celebrating sexual intimacy

How then is this kind of love nurtured, and this kind of intimacy cultivated? In other words, How is human sexuality celebrated?

Human sexuality is celebrated in the context of an abiding commitment, which means, a secure marriage. This is clear from our exposition of the Song. Insofar as God Himself defines marriage as a man and woman becoming “one flesh,” in His design, there is no such thing as pre-marital or extra-marital sex. All sex is marital. The Song has shown how important it is to observe God’s created order in this regard. Not surprisingly, it has been reported, “A University of Chicago survey of 3,432 Americans ages 18 through 59 found that monogamous married couples reported the highest sexual satisfaction, while singles and marrieds who have multiple partners registered the lowest” (Shalit 1999: 171).

There is a refrain in the Song that unifies the book: “Do not arouse or awaken love until it pleases” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4). Every occurrence of this refrain follows a description of lovemaking (we have looked at 2:4-6 and 3:4; 8:2 is even more explicit than 3:4, while 8:3 repeats 2:6 verbatim). Hence the “love” that is aroused or awakened refers to sexual love and its consummation. In fact, the word “love” can even be used in parallel with the word for “lovemaking”: “Come, let us drink our fill of lovemaking until morning; let us delight ourselves with sexual relations [literally, loves]” (Proverbs 7:18).

The refrain thus sounds the warning that “The joys of physical love and the arousal to that ecstasy are not to be toyed with…. The full appreciation of the joys of physical love can happen only when love comes at the appropriate time with the partner that love chooses” (Hess 2005: 82-83). This is to ensure that sexual intimacy is the consummation of marital love. So the first two occurrences are in the context of anticipation of sexual intimacy to warn against consummation before marriage.

The third occurrence, which is introduced and worded (in the Hebrew) differently (cf. Longman 2001: 205-206), is in the context of celebrating the maturation of sexual intimacy within marriage. And it is followed immediately with the reminiscence about the wedding night (8:5-7), when the woman “awakened” (same Hebrew word as in the refrain) her husband for the first time. They thus experienced the intoxication of sexual love to the full as well as the joys of its consummation at the appropriate time with the partner “it pleases.” Hence the repetition of the refrain here confirms, based on experience, the wisdom of heeding the warning.

Therefore human sexuality is also celebrated in the context of legitimate arousal. In fact much exposure to illegitimate sexual arousal (sexual lust) can weaken a man’s physical response to subsequent sexual stimulation and his enjoyment of sex. In the extreme case of addiction to Internet pornography, he can even lose his capacity to have sex (see Wilson 2014, which also provides proven answers on how to reverse the addiction and its effects).

Since sexual intimacy is the consummation of marital love, human sexuality is further celebrated in the context of mutual adoration. This is so evident throughout the Song that it needs no further comment. The Song focusses on expressing how beautiful marital love is without suppressing how delicate it is. For it recognizes the times it will be broken, resulting in painful alienation, and thus will need repair, resulting in joyful reconciliation. The capacity for making repairs assumes the willingness to accept non-moral imperfections and to forgive moral transgressions of each other. This requires the commitment to obey God in loving one’s [most intimate] neighbor as oneself. It is due to the lack of mutual acceptance and forgiveness that married couples, who obviously adored each other on their wedding day, begin to hate each other after the honeymoon.

The three contexts for celebrating sexual intimacy (abiding commitment, legitimate arousal and mutual adoration) involve moral, social as well as physical laws built into God’s created order (cf. Proverbs 30:19; Longman 2001: 49). Without the fear of God, we are not likely to commit ourselves to observe them, and to repent whenever we fail to do so. The fear of God is thus indeed the beginning of love.