A Song for the celibate and sexually broken: Everybody needs Song of Songs

A friend recently told me they’d rather skip the Song of Songs in their read-through of the whole Bible. Their reason? “I’m single. Why would I want to read about people having sex and being in love?”

As somebody who studies the Song vocationally, I make a habit of asking Bible-reading people what they think the Song of Songs is about. The most common answer (after “I’m not sure” and “I’ve never read it”) is the Song of Songs is a celebration of marriage, or of sex within marriage.

Comments like that can exclude readers who have nobody to go to bed with.

This common conception can have the effect of making some people feel lonely and less-than.

More than once I’ve heard a Bible teacher recommend reading the Song in bed with your husband or wife, as though that were the highest religious experience this side of heaven! Comments like these can exclude readers who have nobody to go to bed with.

It’s not only unmarried people who feel left out. People in unhappy marriages or who are struggling with sexual brokenness may also feel excluded by the perceived ideal in the Song of Songs.

The exclusion is especially frustrating because the Song itself doesn’t confine its message to happily married people. In fact, reading the Song of Songs with a focus on marriage misses the point.

The Song of Songs is not (primarily) a celebration.

Are there elements of celebration? Undeniably! The couple at the centre of the poem are overjoyed at being together. He thinks she is like “a lily among thorns” (2:2) and “the most beautiful one among women” (1:8). She agrees that he stands out among other men “like an apple tree among the trees of the forest” (2:3). They speak whole poems of delight about each other’s bodies (4:1-15; 5:10-16; 7:1-9). They belong to each other: “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (2:16; 6:3).

But the keynote of the Song is not celebration, but a warning.

The Song is framed by a conversation between the central woman and the “daughters of Jerusalem”, a metaphorical group who stand in for all readers of the Song (not just women). Three times the woman addresses her audience with a Hebrew word that is used to make strong, even legally binding oaths: “I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem … that you do not awaken and you do not stir up love until it pleases” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4).

It’s typical for teachers to reduce this warning to a moralising statement about saving sex until marriage. The experience of the lovers in the Song is supposedly aspirational – “if you hold out for marriage, sex will be as good as this!” But the oath-format of the warning suggests that it’s more serious than that. The woman doesn’t say, “if you wait for love, the wait will be worth it!” She says, “Swear that you won’t stir up love.”

The Song of Songs is not (primarily) about good sex in marriage.

Our tendency to focus on the sexiness of the Song can distract us from the seriousness of its message. Yes, the Song is explicitly sexual at points. However, the woman’s warning reveals that the poem is for people who aren’t making love, as much as for people who are. It gives people who aren’t experiencing the type of love in the Song a window into what it’s like. It’s an opportunity to reflect on that type of relationship and prepare our hearts for conducting ourselves wisely.

It’s an honest picture that provides a safe starting point for frank conversations about sex.

The Song of Songs also acknowledges the messy realities of navigating sexual relationships in a broken world. The woman admits that in the past she hasn’t “kept” her “vineyard”, a euphemism for not maintaining sexual purity (1:6). King Solomon shows up in a carriage “inlaid with love” from many women, a reference to his notorious sexual promiscuity (3:10; 1 Kings 11:1-3).

The woman’s older brothers assume a posture of control over her by resolving to esteem their sister if she’s pure, and besiege her if she’s promiscuous (that’s the meaning of 8:8-9). King Solomon is shown again as a man who treats women like possessions (8:11-12).

The Song assumes that the ideal relationship is consensual, committed and exclusive but it also acknowledges the existence of broken boundaries and bad examples. It’s an honest picture that provides a safe starting point for frank conversations about sex.

Christian purity culture tends to reduce sex to an action you’re doing or not doing. Those who aren’t doing it are typically encouraged not to think or talk much about it either. But this avoidant approach is at odds with reading the Old Testament itself.

The Hebrew Bible is saturated with sex — from routine mentions of sexual encounters in the stories, to elaborate details of sex-related rules and rituals in the law, to the personification of folly as an adulterous woman in Proverbs and the grand metaphor of idolatrous-worship-as-whoring in the prophetic books. That this undercurrent exists in so many Biblical texts exposes a truth we Christians are often too polite to talk about.

Instead of ignoring it, admitting the power of love and sex is crucial to handling these realities well.

Celibate or not, our sexual desires drive (and derail) our decisions more often than we feel able to admit. It’s even more difficult to discuss openly if you’re single and expected to have your sexuality switched off.

Instead of ignoring it, admitting the power of love and sex is crucial to handling these realities well. The tone of warning in the Song culminates in one of the scariest statements in the Old Testament: “Love is as strong as death, jealousy as unrelenting as Sheol. Its flames are flashes of fire, a consuming inferno!” (Song 8:6).

The Song speaks about romantic love and reminds us of God’s love. It is unafraid to articulate the hold our hearts have over our lives: our desires draw us closer to God or tempt us further away. This is true for all of us, regardless of relationship situation, celibacy status or sexual orientation. The power of love will manifest in different potential dangers depending on your personal context.

The Israelites in the Old Testament had a chronic problem with their sex lives warping their spiritual life. They were repeatedly warned against marrying people who didn’t worship Yahweh, and throughout the Old Testament history they kept doing it anyway. Inevitably, it diluted their devotion and dragged their hearts away from God. The most famous perpetrator of this problem was King Solomon, whose name is on the Song of Songs (1:1). When we read that love of women turned Solomon’s heart away from love of God, with consequences for the whole nation (1 Kings 11:1-13), it’s easier to see why the Song is so serious about the potential consequences of stirring up love.

The Song of Songs sings to us to acknowledge the powerful pull of love, and where our loves might lead us.

The specifics of the message will be different for Christians today, but the essence is the same — be cautious with your heart! When questioned about value of the Old Testament law, Jesus spoke the same great command that underpins the Song of Songs: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:34-40).

While Christians no longer follow the letter of the Jewish laws, Jesus taught that loving God and others first is the foundation from which all our Christian obedience flows. The New Testament calls us to live and love in a way that reflects our participation in the body of Christ: glorifying God with our bodies, since we belong to Jesus and each other (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7).

The Song of Songs sings to us to acknowledge the powerful pull of love, and where our loves might lead us. Single, married or something else, it teaches us to be open-eyed and careful with our heart’s desires.

Kamina Wüst is working on a PhD on the Song of Songs at Moore Theological College, Sydney.