Before the fall, Adam and Eve were both naked, and felt no shame. After the fall, sexuality is one of the first places where they experience the painful and confusing effects of their sins. Since the bible documents God’s rescue plan for mankind, it’s fair to ask: where does Song of Songs fit into this?
If God intends to restore and redeem his creation to its proper functioning, then that process includes God’s plan to redeem human sexuality. God’s concern is that we learn to use sex and sexuality for its rightful purpose in a way that brings honour and glory to its author. The thing is not that we do it, but that we do it right.
Song of Songs is in many ways a challenging book. There are a variety of schools of thought regarding author, narrative flow, characterisation and the meaning of certain terms and passages. My ESV bible mentions a number of these approaches, and selects one while recognising that no one interpretation is devoid of academic difficulties. I’m not qualified to comment on these, but feel free to read up on the differences between the Allegorical Interpretation, the Anthology Interpretation, the Shepherd Hypothesis and the Solomon-Shulammite Interpretation.
This is not to admit that there are no lessons to be learned from Song of Songs. It’s always important to ask questions like:
- Why is this book in the canon of Scripture?
- What is particularly special about this book?
- What does it teach us about God, about reality, about us?
- Does it express ideas found elsewhere in Scripture in a useful or illustrative way?
Some observations about the main themes of Song of Songs (again from ESV study bible):
1. God’s covenant, which commands sexual purity, provides just the right framework (marriage) within which his people may properly enjoy the gift of sexual intimacy (cf. Gen. 2:23–24). Thus God’s people honor him and commend him to the world when they demonstrate with their lives that obedience in such matters brings genuine delight.
2. Marriage is a gift of God, and is to be founded on loyalty and commitment (see Gen. 2:24, “hold fast”), which allows delight to flourish. As such, it is a fitting image for God’s relationship with his people, in both the OT and the NT.
Song of Songs is a reminder that God is the inventor of pleasure; that sex is not somehow better enjoyed outside God’s jurisdiction. It reminds us that romantic love is something worth celebrating, and God often gives access to this profound joy to even the simplest among us.
A balanced view of sexuality identifies the power and fragility of the gift, both the risks and the possibilities. Above all, it acknowledges that sex is a gift from God, but not God himself.
For those of us who are not in a position to enjoy this particular gift of God, it is important to remember that we can yet celebrate what the gift foreshadows. God does not give everyone the blessings of wealth, or of health, or beauty, peace, or wisdom. But before you find this cause for despair, remember that he has given us Christ: God has given us Himself. We can derive greater satisfaction in knowing that the all-powerful God who saves us in Christ intends to withhold no good thing from those who love him.
There will indeed come a time when the church, the bride of Christ, will see the approach of the bridegroom. We need not be ashamed to understand Christ’s return in terms of marital consummation, but we should also be careful to understand that the gift of human sexuality is but a shadow of the joy which Christ plans for his church.