The Song of Songs is one of the most misread books of the Bible. For many, the Song of Songs is a mysterious story of a bride and groom. For others, the Song of Songs is thought to be an extended metaphor for various sexual activities.
It may surprise you to know that Song of Songs only narrates two sexual encounters and there are no explicit details! Here’s the first one: “I came to my garden, my sister, my bride, I gathered my myrrh with my spice, I ate my honeycomb with my honey, I drank my wine with my milk” (Song 5:1). The second sexual encounter is found in Song of Songs 8:5: “Under the apple tree I awakened you” (Song 8:5).
The rest of the song portrays romantic love and sexual desire that waits for the right time to awaken. Hint: that time is marriage.
Song of Songs is a poem that comes to us from an entirely different world. In the song, sex and romance are viewed as good, holy, and right. Today, we cannot help but think of sex and romance in over-sexualized, pornographic terms. In our world, Sex is ubiquitous, for sale, and unholy.
We need to embrace the romantic and sexual worldview that Song of Songs portrays in order to heal us from our day’s over-sexualized thinking. We need to disabuse ourselves of wrong notions of what Song of Songs is about.
Here are three views of Song of Songs that must abandon to have a more accurate understanding of what Song of Songs is meant to teach us, and why it is even included in Scripture at all.
Seeing Sex Everywhere
The first way we misread Song of Songs is by trying to find hints of sex in every passage. Some might be tempted to think: “Ah, the groom goes into a garden. The garden must have some xyz sexual representation, and it must refer to some kind of specific sexual activity!”
Look, I am not trying to say that there are no romantic or sexual aspects to the book. Far from it. But when Song of Songs is read in such a way as to find sexually specific acts within every phrase or allusion in the book, the main point of the Song of Songs is completely missed.
The overarching drive in Song of Songs is a holy love that waits to awaken love until the right time (Song 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). And this right time comes at marriage (Song 5:1; 8:5). So if you find sexual activity throughout the book, then this would mean that the groom and bride have awakened at the wrong time. This simply does not make sense and goes against the message of Song of Songs.
Song of Songs also intentionally describes love and sex in metaphorical and beautiful ways. To attempt to identify sexual acts behind the metaphors misreads the song’s poetic intent. It is to read the book like science manual rather than poem with rich metaphorical language. In Song of Songs, sex is viewed as a return to paradise, to the garden of Eden (cf. Song 4:16). It is a reverse of the curse though the consummation of marriage. Solomon is leading us to a deeper understanding of marriage, not merely describing how to have sex.
Sexual desire, nevertheless, plays an important role in the book. But it is part of a narrative of a holy love, a love that is stronger than death (cf. Song 8:6). Don’t look for sex in every nook and cranny in this book. It’s there. But it’s not everywhere. Meditate instead on the love the groom has for his bride, and the bride’s love for her groom. This love desires each other fully and purely. And it waits until the right time to awaken its love (Song 8:6).
Not Reading It Because of Its Sexual Nature
Seeing sex everywhere is a wrong way to read the book. But it is equally wrong to be wary of the sexual content in the book. We shy away from the book because of its sexual nature, even if it is a holy book about romantic love. We have no idea how to discuss Song of Songs, much less imagine it being preached from a pulpit. As a result of seeing this as a book about sex, we tend to skip over it all together and pay no mind to it (except to nervously smile over certain passages).
That is understandable when you read passages like Song of Songs 7:3: “Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle” (Song 7:3). (Can you imagine a baptist pastor preaching on this from a pulpit?). But I wonder if we shy away from passages like this because our culture cannot help but to corrupt sex. Song of Songs 7:3 forces thoughts into our mind of a game-of-thrones-esque sexuality because we read our cultural assumptions into it.
But the Bible celebrates sexuality as a holy and pure thing. The language of Song of Songs 7:3 teaches married couples how to enjoy each other’s bodies. After all, it’s okay to compliment your love’s body. When you are marrying someone, you probably should be attracted to them! You should want to consummate the marriage.
Song of Songs speaks of legitimate sexual desire for one’s love. You don’t need to be wary of it. Desire for sex is good and right. You can and should embrace the Song’s sexual nature.
But at the same time, you need to listen to the refrain: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song 8:4). Romance and desire flood the Song of Songs, but it also points us to awaken love at the right time. Sex is not a transaction in the Bible; it’s a covenantal union between man and wife.
Missing The Song’s Mystery
The Song of Songs is the greatest of songs. Like the Holy of Holies is the holiest place, so the Song of Songs is the greatest song. It not only celebrates pure love between the groom and his bride, but it also alludes to a divine love.
Solomon leaves the wilderness and arrives in Jerusalem to marry his bride: “What is that coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of a merchant? Behold, it is the litter of Solomon! Around it are sixty mighty men, some of the mighty men of Israel” (Song 3:6-7).
The Song of Songs describes Solomon as a “column of smoke,” bringing to mind the way in which God protected Israel from Egypt during the Exodus (cf. Exod 13:21-22). Solomon then leads the men of Israel from the wilderness to Jerusalem, to Zion, to marry his bride (Song 3:11). The consummation of the marriage between Solomon and his bride is like a return to Eden (cf. Song 4:16-5:1).
The greatest of songs, the Song of Songs, is a song that celebrates a royal marriage, a marriage that allegorically points to God’s marriage to Israel. Like Hosea’s marriage to Gomer, Solomon’s marriage to the bride intentionally symbolizes God’s relationship to Israel. The Song of Songs is written to be an allegory; that is the author’s intent.
The Song of Songs not only alludes to God’s covenant with Israel, but the entire book celebrates one of the greatest mysteries in the universe: marriage. According to the Apostle Paul, human marriage is a mystery points to the love that Christ has for his church: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). Applied to Song of Songs, Solomon, in the line of David, points to the ultimate son of David, the Christ. The bride refers to the church.
This type of reading might make you a little uncomfortable. After all, it doesn’t feel right to equate a sexual love with the love that Christ has for his church. But we need to realize that marriage is a mystery that points to the intensity of God’s love for us. And that love is pure. Today, we can only think of sex in pornographic terms due to the over-sexualized culture in which we live. But sex itself is pure, holy—part of what makes a marriage a marriage. It points to God.
Yes: the groom is Solomon. Yes, the bride is the shulammite woman (Song 6:13). But the Song of Songs is also meant to give insight into one of the greatest mysteries in the universe: Christ’s love for the church. All marriages do this, but the greatest of songs is an inspired account of the holiest of loves: “for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD” (Song 8:6). Love’s fire is as powerful as the death-defying love and the fiery jealousy of the LORD.
Let’s not misread the Song of Songs by reading too much sex into it or by being wary of the sexual content that is in it! And let’s also realize that there is more to the book than simply romance. It is a book that gives insight into a great mystery: Christ’s love for his people, the Church.
*** For a simple and helpful overview of the Song of Songs, consider reading James Hamilton’s commentary. Hamilton’s influence on my thinking is evident in this article.