Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the March 2001 edition of Essentials  
  Teaching Song of Songs

David Walter

David Walter works for the Christian Union at Melbourne University

  Song of Songs is a beautiful and difficult book. It is a collection of moving love poems, each contributing to produce one intense and passionate love song, thus the title Song of Songs. The book is the only extended love poem in the Bible. More than that, it is cyclic and repetitious. It does not relate a story or dramatic unfolding of events and there is some deliberate ambiguity in imagery, so we need to be careful about being overly precise in interpreting images.  
  In constructing the sermons I took an approach which one might take in preaching a wisdom book such as Proverbs. The text teaches practical things about love, sex, physical relating, words, and relationships for example, but has no references to a redemptive framework.  
  Why Teach Song of Songs?  
  Christians often have wrong views of sexuality. Christian youth cultures especially tend to have unhealthy practices, either of denying gender differentiation (as I think had become the case where I taught this) or of outright sleaziness. Neither is Biblical and both are lacking in any theological basis or Christian reflection on the Scriptures. My desire was to give a Biblical and theological basis for understanding human sexuality. I also had a strong desire to squash myths about sex, sexuality and relationships. For instance:  
  God is against sex  
  Sex is the ultimate (and/or only) way to love. That is, if you're not having sex with someone then you can't show them how deeply you love them.  
  The path of true love will always run smoothly if you find the right person.  
  To counter this I was keen to teach:  
  A theology of sexuality.  
  The intercourse (pardon the pun) between sex and words in relationships.  
  Realistic expectations of love and sex  
  How does this fit in with the rest of the Bible?  
  It should not surprise us that such elaborate talk of sex is in the Bible. The Bible is a book about the true God who rules over real life in the real world. As such, we ought to expect him to speak about such a central area of our lives. We need a God-given Biblical and theological framework to fully understand sex, as he designed it. In Genesis 2:15-25, we have set forth the reason and parameters for human sexuality. When teaching Song of Songs at Melbourne University, I was clear to say that sexual intercourse is designed and ordained for lifelong heterosexual marriage. These are God's user instructions for the ultimate expression of sexuality. Song of Songs shows that a Biblically directed sex life is a beautiful, joyful and robust alternative to the promiscuous search for sexual satisfaction. God is pro-sex, the good giver of sex but desires us to use it with his given user instructions. This is well captured in Song of Songs, in the refrain "Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires".  
  How does this relate to Jesus?  
  Jesus' Lordship over all creation extends to our sexuality. As the agent of creation, God has made our bodies through him. Indeed, in Colossians 1:15-20, we must see that the "all things" that were created by and for Jesus includes our sex-lives. Jesus is the Lord of sex by creation and redemption. Indeed how we use our bodies is not merely a physical question. Romans 12:1 shows us that the conduct of our bodies is an issue of worship. That is, to use our sexuality as God has instructed us is a way of worshipping Jesus as Lord.  
  Constructing a Series  
  Next I had to work out what to cover in the series and how it could be more than a one-off talk about sex. So I asked myself some questions:  
  What are the good things to teach which actually occur in the text of Song of Songs?  
  How can I emphasize different things in each sermon?  
  How can I show progression throughout the series?  
  I also asked myself a further question: How can I explain the Gospel in the series without it seeming out of place or superficial? I really wanted to have a Christological section in each talk but without it seeming too foreign or too much like a gear change. I know that I couldn't faithfully reduce the talks to a "so trust in Jesus" Gospel outline, but was convinced that there was a natural connection to the Gospel. I tried to do this by showing parallels between the teaching of Song of Songs and God's achievements in Christ. The substance of Song of Songs - physicality, words, love, pain - are all seen in the God-incarnate Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for many.  
  I covered a series on Song of Songs at Melbourne University in three talks: God & Sex, Sex & Love, and Love & Pain. The titles are deliberately trying to show links in the message of the book and the progression of the series. Each talk had an application section for both couples and singles and I fielded questions on each talk. Below is a summary of the series.  
  Talk 1: God and Sex  
  God and Sex included much of the framework material above. We looked at 7:1-8:4, thinking about some of the fairly explicit imagery. Chapter 7 is the most extensive single descriptive sequence in the book, so is not a bad place to start to help people get a feel for the style and content of Song of Songs. The goal of this talk was to help students see that marriage is not a less spiritual option for those too weak for celibacy (a mistake I made early in my student days). Sex is a good gift from God, given with user instructions. Sexuality is a part of life. Physical intimacy is important for bonding in long-term relationships. We need to think about how to honour God and each other with our sexuality.  
  Talk 2: Sex and Love  
  In Sex and Love I talked about how we express love by the time we spend with one another, the words we use and by our physical intimacy. We looked at 3:6-5:1, considering how the man and woman loved each other with their words. We usually think about Song of Songs as a book about sexual love but it's also a book about verbal love. God designed us to relate to each other verbally, emotionally and physically. I made the point that good sex is about a good relationship. We ought not to expect that we can damage each other with our words during the day then presume to love each other with our bodies at night. Indeed, the way we use our words is a much better barometer of love, for loving one another with words is much more difficult than sex. Jesus is God's great example of holistic love. God tells us of His love for us in Jesus and demonstrates it physically by Jesus' death (eg. 1 John 4:9-10). It is important for all of us to build personal relationships, of whatever kind, with verbal loving. Those wishing to remain single can build loving platonic relationships with words of love and appreciation. Marrieds (of which I had few in my audience) can pep up their marriage and sex lives by making a greater effort in the area of verbal love. Those wishing to marry can practise for a healthy marriage and for good sex - by making a habit of loving people with their words.  
  Talk 3: Love and Pain  
  Love and Pain was an address about the difficulties and hardships of caring deeply for someone. We looked at 3:1-5 and 5:2-8, seeing that love is a two-sided coin, where we experience both the joy of love and the pain of love, both ecstasy and agony. As a book about real life, Song of Songs speaks about both. The passages are two dreams about the pain of separation. For this reason, they group together nicely. In any relationship, there will be hurt, pain and frustration. Romantic relationships can quickly founder and friendships can splinter into indifference. The cost of love - loving and being loved - is exposure to pain and grief, for in an imperfect world with imperfect people, where there's love, there's pain. We see the incredible pain of God's amazing love in the cross - where in his death Jesus bears the pain of God's love for sinners. Love is often messy and relationships are hard. These dreams of love and pain are in Song of Songs to prepare us for the pain of love, so that we won't be destroyed when love gets rough. God has made us for relationships and we can enjoy them with our eyes wide open if we know that where there's love, there's pain.  
  Teaching Song of Songs  
  Song of Songs is a beautiful and powerful book. Despite some of the difficulties, it is very much worth teaching. Most peopleare longing for some input on issues such as sex  
  and relationships. Some of the imagery is quite foreign to twentieth century Australia, and just ascertaining who is speaking at certain stages of the book can present some difficulty. In preparing sermons on Song of Songs, I felt that first and foremost I needed to understand how to read the book and why God has providentially included it in the Bible. Only then did I feel free to do more detailed textual work and preparation.  
  How should we read Song of Songs?  
  Song of Songs has an explicitly erotic subject matter. The book's imagery is so clearly sexual that early interpreters took recourse to allegorical exegesis to discover the "true" meaning of the book. Their embarrassment led to the repression of a natural reading of the book during much of the early Christian period, a repression that you will (as I did) find in some quarters of the church today. Read allegorically, the book is a description of the love relationship between Jesus Christ and the church, just as in early Jewish circles the relationship between the lover and the beloved signified God's love for Israel. While this is undoubtedly well intentioned, there are passages in the book which make this somewhat unlikely. See, for example, 7:6-9.  
  Indeed, I think that it is better to read the book as it first appears: an extended love poem between a man and a woman. A "natural" reading of the images of the book will be a reading that recognizes the sexual nature of the content of the book. The love is human love, love between a man and a woman. Song of Songs is a love song in which the lover and beloved express their deep affection and sexual longing for one another. It is a celebration of physical love between the man and the woman.  
  But why would this be in the Bible? The garden imagery draws the mind back to the Garden of Eden. The love songs fit into a "theology of sexuality" that begins in the Garden of Eden. The imagined lovemaking in the garden of the Song reminds the reader of the relationship that existed between Adam and Eve before the Fall. They were "one flesh" (Gen 2:24) in the Garden. They stood before one another naked and felt no shame (vs. 25). In other words, the harmony that existed between the man and the woman in the Garden was expressed in sexual terms. Kenneth Maxwell in his secular book The Sexual Odyssey has caricatured Christian sexuality saying that "sex ..[is] the... target of moralists intent on taking the fun out of bedtime sport". I don't think he's read Song of Songs.  
  Furthermore, Song of Songs functions to promote an aesthetic rather than purely functional view of sexuality. This is a timely word for many Christians, as human evolutionary views influence us to think that the point of sexuality is to perpetuate our genes or species. Song of Songs is a strong antidote to a functional view of sex - one merely intentioned for procreation.  
  Because Song of Songs is a series of love poems, we need to read each passage as a love poem. They are unusual to preach, yet God has provided us with a great book to give instruction. And if people don't hear a Biblical presentation of these ideas, they'll just accept the secular teaching as truth without being equipped to make a critique.  
  I also found that the series produced some great opportunities to touch on issues such as masturbation, sexual fantasies, "how far can you go?" questions, homosexuality, and so on. Many students told me that they had never realised that there were Biblical ways of thinking about some of these things. Though somewhat sensitive, it is a good chance to talk about these, as culture bombards us with so many mistaken and perverted ideas about sexuality. Someone wisely encouraged me to be careful to make sure I included sections for singles in the sermons. Talks on love and physical relating could have been quite alienating otherwise. Also, I tried to have a bit of fun with the series, attempting to model that talking about sexuality in Biblical terms is a natural activity and not one to be embarrassed by.  
  If you want to read a good book on Song of Songs, Tom Gledhill's "Bible Speaks Today" commentary, while a little too imaginative at points, captures the flavour and feel of the book quite well.  
  Let me encourage you to think about the value of preaching Song of Songs. It's hard work for the preacher, but great benefit for the hearers.  

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