Deepening Desire

Original Date: 
Sunday, September 28, 2014

Song of Songs 1 The Song: Deepening Desire

First Date
For our very first date, I took Beth to see the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast.

Actually, that’s not exactly true.

It was our second date.

And she didn’t know it was a date.

We were at UNI and we were in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship together. And one night at IVF some of the girls were talking about this new Disney movie. And Beth mentioned how she wanted to see it, but she didn’t have a car to get to the mall. I had a car. So I suggested maybe I could take her.

Now, this is an often debated part of Muilenburg family lore. Beth claims that she thought I was inviting all of the girls to ride along to the movie. I’m pretty sure I made it clear I was only interested in taking her. Either way, she agreed, and we decided to go on Saturday.

Now, it just happened that there was a home football game that Saturday. As you can probably guess, I don’t like to miss football games. Beth and I had been to games with the InterVarsity group in the past. So I suggested that before the movie we go to the game together. She agreed.

Now, it just happened that my brother and his wife had just had a baby girl. So I mentioned this to Beth, and asked if maybe before we went to the game she’d be willing to go to University Book and Supply with me to help me pick out a good gift. She agreed.

Now, it just happened that it was an election year, and one our Senators was going to be speaking in the Student Union. I knew from earlier conversations that Beth had some interest in politics. So I suggested that before we went shopping for my niece, before we went to the game, before we went to the movie, perhaps we could go listen to the Senator. She agreed.

At this point, I was feeling pretty good about things. I had lined up a date that was going to last at least 10 hours.

Beth claims she still didn’t know it was a date.

As it happened, it snowed on the big day. And I don’t mean just a little snow. There was a full-on blizzard. But I didn’t let that stop me. I trudged across campus to Beth’s dorm room and together we walked out to check the condition of the car. There was no way we were getting it out of the parking lot. They canceled the Senator’s speech. But we still made it to the bookstore to buy a gift for my niece, and they still had the football game in the UNI-Dome. I think we had a pretty good time.

And since I couldn’t take her to see Beauty and the Beast like I had promised, I suggested that maybe we could go to the matinee on Sunday afternoon. She agreed. And that was our second date.

On Marriage
Today we are starting a series on love and marriage. Every fall we try to do a series that has something to do with family. And as I was planning out the sermons for this year, I really had the feeling we should do something on marriage. But I wasn’t sure what angle to take.

Then we got an email about this new movie called “The Song.” The project involved Kyle Idleman and City on a Hill productions, both of whom I’ve been impressed with. And Beth and I got a chance to see the movie in late July, and we thought it was very good. So we’re building this series on marriage around the small group material that goes with “The Song.” And, of course, the movie opened in Spencer this weekend, and we encourage you to go see it.

Now, I realize that this series on marriage meets all of us at different places. Some of you have been married for quite a long time, and you could come up here and teach on marriage much better than I. Some of you have been divorced and it’s been a hard path, and you could probably come up here and give some truths about marriage that I’ve never even considered. Some of you are widowed. Some of you are single. Some of you are way too young to even be thinking about marriage yet.

And for those of us who are married, our marriages are probably all over the spectrum. Some of us probably feel like our relationship has never been better, some of us probably feel like our marriage is on life support, and most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle.

But marriage is a big part of life. It’s important in our culture, it’s important in our community, and it’s important in our church. And whether you are currently married or not, we all have a stake in seeing marriages that thrive and honor God. Marriage is God’s idea. He created it. And it’s important that we let God speak into it.

So I hope you’ll dive into this with us. Be a part of worship for the next six weeks. Get into a small group. Go see the movie.

The Song
So, today we are starting a series on marriage. And we’re going to start with attraction. What is it that attracts one person to another? Imagine Beth falling in love with me as I dragged her through a blizzard. Imagine Ryan and Marlee’s eyes meeting over a pile of Jenga blocks in the church basement.

And to guide us in this we’re going to turn to one of the more mysterious books of the Bible: the Song of Songs.

There’s actually quite a bit of controversy around this book, beginning with what to call it. The NIV calls it the “Song of Songs.” You may know it as “The Song of Solomon.” Some translations call it “Canticles.” The title is found in the first verse, which reads:

Solomon’s Song of Songs.

What that means is that this is the “best of songs.” And it is either written by Solomon, or for Solomon, or about Solomon.

Traditionally, it has been understood as a love poem written by Solomon about the one girl he truly loved. It might seem a little strange that the Bible’s “go to” book for celebrating marriage would come from a guy who had 700 wives and 300 concubines; but if it is written by Solomon then it is a reflection on how things should have been, before he took all the wrong turns described in the book of Ecclesiastes. Who better to get advice about marriage from then the guy who made every mistake?

But I also read an interesting interpretation of the book this week that suggests maybe it is not by Solomon—but about Solomon. This understanding suggests that there are not two main characters in the book, but three: Solomon, the Beloved, and the Shepherd. Under this understanding, Solomon is wooing the girl, but her heart really belongs to the Shepherd. In the end, she chooses true love with the Shepherd over the riches and prestige that a romance with the king has to offer.

Either way, the book is a highly stylized, poetic expression of love between the Beloved and her Lover. It holds out fidelity and romance and passion as wonderful, God-given gifts. It is a book about intimacy. And it uses some pretty frank, unblushing language. It’s a PG-13 book. In fact, I read that ancient rabbis used to say that no Jew should even read the Song of Songs until he had attained the age of 30. So it’s a PG-30 book. That’s one of the reasons we are offering an alternative children’s worship service next week.

So, some of the language of the book is pretty grown up. And I think it’s good to know that the Bible does not isolate our sexuality from God. In fact, the modern tendency to reduce sex to mere physical and biological processes is not a sign of our sophistication, but of our spiritual poverty.

There is no easily defined storyline in the book. It’s mostly dialogue between the Beloved and her Lover. In a way: it holds up this single romance like a gem and then examines it from many angles. We won’t go through the book verse by verse, but I’ll pull out certain verses that help us understand God’s perspective on love and marriage.

And, as I said, we’re going to begin with attraction. What is it that makes one person desirable to another? If you are single and thinking you might marry some day, this is going to be about the sort of things you should be looking for in a potential mate. If you are married, then hopefully this will be about the sort of things that attracted you to your spouse in the first place.

I would like to suggest that attraction comes on three tiers:

Let Him Kiss Me
So, tier one is Physical. In most cases, attraction between a man and a woman begins at the physical or outward level. We see something we like, and we want to see more of it.

And, let me say: Physical attraction is O.K. It’s part of God’s design. Look at the second verse, this is the girl talking about the man she is attracted to:

2Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth- for your love is more delightful
than wine.

This is a great verse. This is a verse I’ve encouraged Beth to memorize in six different versions of the Bible! (Tommy Nelson, The Book of Romance, p. 3) This is how the whole books starts. Clearly this woman feels a physical attraction toward her lover. She finds him utterly intoxicating, better than wine. She wants to kiss him. Later, in verse 16 she says:

16How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming!

She likes the way he looks. She likes his charm, his smile, his sense of humor.

And what about him? What does he think of the way she looks? He likes it. Verses 9-11:

9I liken you, my darling, to a mare harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh.
10Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels.
11We will make you earrings of gold, studded with silver.

Obviously, we have to make some cultural allowances here. I don’t think I’d get away with comparing Beth to a horse in harness. But he means it as a compliment. Think about it: what kind of horse are you going to hitch to Pharaoh’s chariot? Only the finest, right? An elegant, carefully groomed, gorgeous horse on parade.

There are several other references to the woman’s physical beauty that are going to sound weird, even funny to us. Her hair is compared to a “flock of goats.” Her teeth to a “flock of sheep.” Her temples are like “halves of pomegranate.” (SoS 4:1-3). Different images, to be sure. But the point is that there is a celebration of physical beauty here. It’s part of the attraction between the two.

And what I want to say is: that’s O.K. It’s part of the way God has designed things. I’d even suggest that the reference to earrings and jewels in verses 10-11 tell us that efforts to pay attention to our physical appearance and make ourselves attractive to our mate are acceptable. Getting your hair done, wearing nice clothes, working to take off a little flab—those are all reasonable things to do.

BUT! There’s a huge caution here. Far too much of attraction in our culture stops right here, with the physical, the outward. What does he look like? How much money does he make? Who’s she connected to? How well does she measure up to an artificial standard of beauty? Proverbs 31:30 says:

30Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Here’s the thing about the physical: it’s deceptive and it’s declining. It’s deceptive because it doesn’t tell us much about who a person really is. It’s all superficial. It’s just surface stuff.

Song of Songs gives warrant for wearing jewelry and dressing nice, but one of the great crimes of our culture—a crime we are committing against women in particular—is that we are telling people that their self-worth is measured by how they look. We are putting far too much pressure on women—and our little girls—to live up to certain subjective standards of fashion and beauty. That’s why the New Testament so clearly warns that true beauty does not come from hairstyle or jewelry or fine clothes (1 Peter 3:3).

And the physical is declining. Physical beauty is fleeting. These outward things that make such a strong first impression on us are all temporary. If you like a guy for his money, remember: he might not always have it. If you are attracted to a gal for her flawless skin, remember: eventually it’s going to wrinkle.

If your attraction is based entirely on the physical, eventually that’s going to fade.

Your Name is like Perfume
So we need to think about the second tier of attraction: which I’ll call moral. More than what the other person looks like, you should be investigating his or her character. What is this other person really like? Let’s go back to Song of Songs, verse 3. This is the woman talking:

3Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the maidens love you!

In that culture, regular bathing was not a high priority. So what they did for personal hygiene was use a lot of perfumes. They used a lot of olive oil for treating their hair and smelling nice (or at least, what they considered to smell nice!)

And what she’s saying about her man here is that his “name is like perfume poured out.” What she’s saying is that he has a good name. In other words, he has a good reputation. All the maidens love him, not just because he’s handsome, but because he’s a good man. He has character, virtue, integrity.

Some translations read: “your name is like purified oil.” The purified oil was the first pressing of oil from the harvest. It was the oil used in the lampstand that burned in the temple. It was the best, the finest. That’s what the woman saw in his name.

And what about her? What was her character like? We get a glimpse in verses 5 and 6:

5Dark am I, yet lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon. 6Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother's sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I have neglected.

There’s a hint of a tragic back story here. In that culture, fair skin was considered beautiful: because it suggested wealth and power. A woman with fair skin could sit in the shade while servants did the hard work. But this woman has a tan. It appears that her father is gone and step-brothers (her mother’s sons) have treated her like Cinderella. She has to labor in the fields.

But what we learn about her character is that she is a hard worker. She’s obedient. She’s not a spoiled princess.

It reminds me of the story of Isaac’s wife. When Abraham decided it was time for the child of promise to marry, he was reluctant to find a wife from among the pagan nations of Canaan. So he sent his most trusted servant on a long journey back to his homeland with instructions to find a suitable wife for Isaac.

When the servant got there, he didn’t hold a beauty pageant. He didn’t set up interviews with all the girls to find out who was the most charming. He didn’t set up a website to match dating profiles. Instead, he parked himself next to the town well and he prayed: “Lord, let one of these young women volunteer to water my camels.”

And out comes Rebekah. He asks her for a drink and she says: “Certainly, and I’ll draw water for your camels too.” Now, this was no small task. The servant had 10 camels, and each camel can drink up to 30 gallons of water. Even if they were only half empty, that’s at least 150 gallons of water she was volunteering to draw.

And the point is: that says a lot about her character. She had a servant’s heart. She wasn’t afraid to get her nails dirty. She was hospitable. That’s how the servant knew this was the woman for Isaac. (Genesis 24:1-21)

If you are in a place where you are looking for a potential mate, don’t settle for just the external stuff. Put yourself in a position where you can learn about their morals, their character.

• How do they react in stressful situations?
• How are they with telling the truth?
• What sort of work ethic do they have?
• What sort of temper do they have?
• How is their reputation with other people?

I remember one of the first things that attracted me to Beth. It was before the Beauty and the Beast thing. We were at a retreat at church and we ended up randomly put in a small group together. And Beth shared a story of something really hard she had to go through in High School. And I remember being so impressed with her compassion, her gentleness, her kindness, and her perseverance in a really tough situation. It’s a big reason I wanted to be the one who took her to that movie.

Sometimes I see couples who enter into a relationship even though there are some obvious concerns about character flaws. One will say: “I know this has been a problem in the past, but I’m sure it will change once we’re married.” I hate to say it, but it almost never does.

One more thing on this topic: what about intimacy before marriage? Song of Songs 2:7 says:

7Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.

Every interpreter I looked at reads this as a caution against intimacy before marriage. Do not awaken love until its time. It’s so important, that the entire verse is repeated—word for word—in chapter 3, verse 5.

I know it’s an old-fashioned position, and it’s pretty much assumed that after just a few dates (especially once you’re in your 20s) the relationship will become intimate—but there’s a lot of wisdom in waiting. It says a ton about the character of the other person if they are willing to wait; and it also says a ton about the relationship being stuck on the tier 1 level if the physical part of the relationship is considered essential for the relationship to continue.

The Beams of Our House Are Cedars
So, attraction comes on two tiers: the physical and the moral. But there is a third tier, and in my opinion it is the most important. I’ll call it the spiritual. If you are a follower of Christ, then the big question when considering a potential mate is: what is his or her relationship with Jesus?

To be honest, there isn’t that much about God in the Song of Songs. He isn’t named, but it is understood that this is a celebration of romance in the context of God’s kingdom. And we get a hint of that in the last verse of chapter 1:

17The beams of our house are cedars; our rafters are firs.

Commentators are divided on this: but I think there is a reference to God here. You see, this book was written in the same era that the Temple was being built. And if you go to 2 Chronicles 2 and 3 to read about the construction of the temple, one of the things that is going to stand out to you is how much cedar they used. Cedar, particularly the cedars of Lebanon, was considered the finest of woods, and one of the few places you would find cedar in Israel would be the temple.

So what I see here is a reference to the Temple. This is a way for the man to say: “We are going to build our relationship on the foundation of God. We are going to find our spiritual home, together.”

There’s a reason the Old Testament makes such a big deal about intermarrying with foreigners. In most cases, those foreigners worshipped other gods, and the tendency was for them to seduce the Israelites into worshipping them as well. 1 Kings 11:1-4 tells us that this is precisely what happened to Solomon—the more wives he acquired, the more they turned his heart towards other gods. The Bible says about him: “His heart was not fully devoted the LORD his God.”

The New Testament puts it like this:

14Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (2 Cor. 6:14)

That’s a verse that applies to more than marriage, but it is certainly applicable to marriage. When a farmer puts a pair of oxen in the yoke, he wants them to be evenly matched. If one is large and strong, while the other smaller, they’ll pull against each other. They’ll have a hard time going in the same direction. In the same way, a marriage between a Christ-follower and non-believer is bound to have difficulties. Religion will become a source of conflict. The one following Christ will find him or herself pulled away from faith. Or, the believing spouse end up in a position of always praying and waiting for the other to come to belief.

Now, I know this is a tough issue—and some of you find yourself in marriages where you and your spouse do not see faith in the same way. My heart goes out to those of you who are praying daily for a change of heart in your spouse.

My friend Matt Mitchell, is a pastor in Pennsylvania who also writes a blog. He’s been doing his blog for about 12 years, and he uses it to post his weekly sermons, among other things. On the right hand side of his blog, he’s got a window that lists the most popular postings on his site. And, for the last 8 years, the most clicked on thing on his blog has been a sermon he wrote called “Married to an Unbeliever”, based on 1 Peter 3. I know that this is an issue that strikes a nerve, a place where people are looking for help.

It’s not really what my message is about today, but if you are looking for some guidance on this issue, I can’t do any better than to refer you to Matt’s sermon. You can find it at Open up his blog and look for the box on the right side that says Popular Posts. Click on the message entitled “Married to an Unbeliever.” I think you’ll find some real help.

But, my point today is that as you are considering what is important in who you are attracted to, don’t forget the spiritual.

People say that the two things you should never discuss at a dinner party are religion and politics. And sometimes people think it’s the same way in dating and marriage. If you start talking about religion, maybe the relationship won’t work out. But I can’t see how, if you are a Christ-follower, you could let that most important thing about yourself be a peripheral issue.

Jesus wants to be first in your heart. He wants to be the treasure you would trade in everything else to possess. If you willfully and knowingly enter into a relationship with someone who doesn’t view Jesus in the same way, there is bound to be conflict.

His Banner is Love
So, we’re doing a series on marriage. And it starts with desire. What should you be attracted to in a potential mate? Or, if you are married, what are those things that you need to remind yourself of that brought you together in the first place?

Attraction comes in three tiers. There’s the physical. Do you like the way he or she looks? Do you find him or her charming? That’s a legitimate level of attraction.

But there’s more. There’s the moral. Is he or she a good person? Does he have integrity? Does she have a servant heart? Character matters.

And then there’s the spiritual. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then you have to know: is that other person a believer too? It’s not a secondary matter. It’s a matter of first importance.

Finally, as strange and mysterious as the Song of Songs is, most every commentator agrees that it also functions as a pointer to Jesus Christ. That is, the love expressed between the Lover and the Beloved is a foreshadowing of the love that Jesus has for His Bride, the church.

So we can read a verse like Song of Songs 2:4:

4He has taken me to the banquet hall, and his banner over me is love.

And we can read it—as it is—as a celebration of the marriage between lover and beloved. The moment when these two become married.

But there is also warrant for reading this as reference to what Jesus does for us. He takes us to his banqueting table, and His banner over us is love.

And so, I want to say that if, as you’re listening to the sermon, you’re seeing some of the mistakes you made. Perhaps you are being reminded of a relationship that was too physical. Or you’re thinking about a character flaw in your spouse that you thought would go away, but it hasn’t. Or, perhaps, you find yourself in a spiritually uneven marriage.

I want to say: His banner over you is love. There is grace for past mistakes. There is hope for your future. Maybe things aren’t the way they should be in your relationship. Maybe there are broken pieces. But I believe Jesus is saying to you today: “Let me in. Give those broken pieces to me. And then watch what I can do.”

Maybe this series on marriage is just what your marriage needs to let Jesus start turning things around.