Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Sexual desires are healthy -- when expressed in a marriage between one man and one woman.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Song of Songs
Song of Songs shows us an important picture of strong sexual desires -- how they are healthy and how God wants them to be expressed. The two lovers greatly want to be with each other, but they are going to wait until marriage to fulfill their desires. All the while, they are completely and exclusively committed to one another.
My love is mine and I am his. Song 2:16
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Animal Pests in Your Home and Garden
Yes, this is a big deal. A very important conversation. There wouldn't be an entire aisle at every home improvement store devoted entirely to helping you eradicate the pests that invade your yard, your garden, your home, your nightmares, if it weren't important!
(By the way, my favorite pest control caption will always be for that photo on the right: "The pest control aisle at Menard's gets kind of intense".)
So, let's have a conversation about pests. Let's make it just animal pests -- we don't need to kick in anyone's arachnophobia. What are those pests you hate the most?
Squirrels - eat the birdseed and chase off the birds
Gophers - can wipe out everything below ground
Mice - get in homes and eat and defecate to their hearts' delight
Voles - eat flowers and roots
Moles - dig tunnels everywhere
Opossums - eat fruits and vegetables and go through your trash
Raccoons - like opossums but cuter
Rabbits - nibble on EVERYTHING you want to grow
Deer - wreak havoc on unprotected gardens
For me, it's simple. Moles. I hate 'em. And I can't seem to get rid of them. I've had yard run-ins with all of these critters (and a few car run-ins, but don't remind me). We have neighborhood dogs, and that keeps things mostly calm, but it hasn't stopped raccoons from killing our chickens, mice from getting into our seed, deer from eating our pretty tree, and moles from tunneling everywhere in our front yard. They can definitely take the fun out of lawn and garden! But nothing bothers me like the moles. Maybe I just think they're ugly.
So, let's discuss. What lengths do you go to to protect your home and garden? What do you obsess over? Do you hire a professional service? Do you build fences? Do you use insecticides or repellants? How much money will you spend on this endeavor? Or, are you the kind of person who doesn't really worry about it?
Here's the long and short of the purpose of this topic: in Song of Songs, the speaker compares her relationship with her lover to a garden -- something she cultivates and protects. Now, think of what you do to cultivate and protect the garden near your house. Do you put as much work into your marriage?
Introducing the Song of Songs
We traditionally call this "The Song of Solomon", but that's misleading. The first verse calls it "Solomon's Song of Songs" which could mean (1) that Solomon wrote it, (2) that it was dedicated to Solomon, or (3) that Solomon just really liked it. "Song of Songs" is a phrase like "Holy of Holies" -- it just means "the greatest of all songs". (Note: some, including the Bible Project, say that "Song of Songs" also means "song composed of multiple songs". And that's true -- everyone does a lot of singing in this Song -- but it might give the faulty impression that this isn't one very tightly-woven whole.)
And, wow, this song is something else. It is so sensual that prudish Jewish and Christian scholars have repeatedly attempted to explain it away as allegory (as the love between God and Israel or Christ and church). No, this is a song about the love shared between a man and a woman who are extremely sexually attracted to one another. (One interpretive approach makes the song a drama with three characters: a poor shepherd, his shepherdess love, and the scheming King Solomon. The problem with that is there is no real plot, and Solomon isn't actually a character.)
In short, Song of Songs is romantic love poetry. It's not so much about telling a story but describing the love these two share. It's extremely metaphorical. Here's D. A. Carson's conclusion:
"Because of its many metaphors, the Song cannot be taken as a series of literal events. It is instead a collection of pictures, imaginings, and flights of fantasy. In the poem, the man and woman are real, as is their love. However, as is true in love poetry, there is no clear division between fantasy and reality."
That has really helped me understand this Song. Sometimes, they are imagining one another as in a dream; sometimes, they are looking back into memories; sometimes, they are trying to describe their present encounter. There's not an order. There's not a plot. There's not a goal. It's just a love poem. (Note: the woman's voice is the prominent one!) And poetry is notoriously subjective. (Note: my favorite translation resource has more notes per page for Song of Songs than for any other Old Testament book.)
To be fair, The Bible Project reads Song of Songs on two levels: the story of a love between a man and a woman, and that of "lady wisdom" pursuing humanity. That explanation starts at 3:53 of the below video:
About the Song of Songs
We really don't know much. We don't know the author or the date. The word choices don't really tell us when it was written because the language could have been updated during compilation. Same with the locations -- the author could have chosen them because they were current or because they were romantic. Same with the mentions of royalty -- the author could have been describing what was going on in his day, or he could have included those images for their romance (like the way authors will set love stories in the Victorian era).
Solomon could have written this, but I mentioned in our time with Proverbs that his having so many wives makes this Song almost incomprehensible (unless he was imagining a life with only one, beautiful wife -- which creates a different set of major problems!).
For the sake of saying something, I'm going to say that Song of Songs was written by an anonymous but talented poet during the time of Solomon, and Solomon liked it so much that he kept it in his annals.
But what about the references to Solomon in the poem? Don't they imply that it's about him? Not necessarily. "Solomon" might be a metaphor of its own, a metaphor for the "man with everything". It would be like calling someone a Romeo or a Hercules -- the reader immediately knows the purpose. The woman sees her man as "her Solomon". In 1:4, she sees him as "her king", not the literal king. Likewise, the man sees his woman as "his Solomon". Huh? It's true: "Shulammite" is the feminine form of "Solomon" (in Hebrew, the same letter is used for "s" and "sh"; that's why "Jesus" and "Joshua" are essentially the same name; remember that ancient written Hebrew didn't have any vowels). Just as Solomon was the wisest, wealthiest, most powerful man in the known world at the time, these two lovers had in each other everything they could ever want. (And remember that at the end of the Song, Solomon is used as a foil to say that no one can buy true love.)
Sexual attraction has been so abused by our sex-driven culture that it is considered something dirty. (That's nothing new. The Puritans turned this poem into an allegory of Christ and the church because they had no place for sexuality.) But sexuality, romance, and physical attraction are created by God for the purpose of human experience and enjoyment!
Unfortunately, going all the way back to Adam and Eve, humans have misused and abused this gift from God. God's law is filled with prohibitions against deviant forms of sex and sexuality because those forms were so common, even among God's people.
In the Song of Songs, we have described for us what a sexual relationship between a man and a woman -- husband and wife -- could and should be in God's design. The lovers are exclusively committed to one another. They consider their relationship a garden, and it would not be a stretch to consider God's law as the wall protecting that garden. We can consider 8:6 to be the highpoint and central theme of the Song:
Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death; jealousy is as unrelenting as Sheol. Love’s flames are fiery flames— an almighty flame!
One big problem with our culture's view of romantic love is that they consider "love (read: sex)" an end to itself. People seek romantic love, and it immediately becomes a perversion. Instead, in the Song, the two lovers exclusively desire each other, and the romantic love is experienced as a result -- the way God intended.
Do we need a romantic love poem in the Bible? I would say "clearly and obviously YES". Romantic love is so misunderstood today. Would you agree that anyone who has romantic interests needs to know that (1) sexual attraction is human, that (2) God wants humans to fulfill their sexual desires, but most importantly that (3) sexuality is to be expressed within the safeguard established by God?
These two lovers really, really want to be with each other.
These two lovers are utterly and exclusively committed to one another.
These two lovers express amazing restraint.
They hold out for marriage. They restrain themselves in public. They are extremely respectful of one another. Aren't these very important lessons to be learned today? I think so.
The Structure of the Song
This is where things get weird and people argue. This is a love poem. It's not structured like a narrative. There are three main characters: the man, the woman, and an assortment of their friends (sometimes his, sometimes hers). But there are no marks in the Song telling us who is saying what (like a script). If your Bible includes speaker headings, know that they aren't in the original text. Most of the "script" is agreed-upon, but not all.
There are five "meetings" in the Song. Each begins with the two apart and ends with them together. The ending/conclusion offers the "point" to the poem:
First Meeting (1:2-2:7)
Second Meeting (2:8-3:5)
Third Meeting (3:6-5:1)
Fourth Meeting (5:2-6:3)
Fifth Meeting (6:4-8:4)
WARNING: The way I'm interpreting the Song of Songs is sometimes different than the way your Leader Guide does! It tries to take some things literally that I take as dream/fantasy elements or simple romantic poetry. It also hems and haws around some of the sexual imagery. I understand why they do ("polite company")! Instead, I'll tell you what I think, knowing that you can take it or leave it and can always call me if you have a question about my interpretation. (And even then, I'm still a bit embarrassed to go into detail about what some of these verses actually mean...)
Part 1: Preventative Care (Song 2:15)
Catch the foxes for us— the little foxes that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in bloom.
You can see from my outline that we start in the middle of the second meeting. We have already met the lovers. He is a heartthrob romantic, and that's about all we know. He might be royalty, but the poem makes so much more sense if he's "just another guy". This sort of love can be shared by any two people from any walk of life. We learn much more about her. She's of the working class and is a little embarrassed by that. But that doesn't bother him!
In the first meeting, we are introduced to the style of imagery -- not so much of appearance but of function. "Vineyard" or garden is the key image in the Song. Initially, she uses it figuratively of her body (a wordplay against her job). But in the rest of the Song it refers to their relationship. They describe each other in the most elaborate, attractive ways possible. The images they use suggest beauty, strength, fertility, virility, and refreshment. They cannot wait for their wedding night, if you know what I mean, and they imagine it both internally and out loud with each other. (This is not a poem for the faint of heart.)
Food for thought if you missed this earlier: if you thought of your marriage as a garden, how might that affect the way you treat it?
[Aside on trying to make this poem an allegory. In college, I learned a praise song based on 2:4. The verse was "He brought me to His banqueting table, and His banner over me is love". In other words, "He" is Jesus and "she" is me. Here's the problem with doing that: "banqueting table" is actually in Hebrew "house of wine" which meant a "pleasure house". It makes our relationship with Jesus romantic or, worse, erotic. That's not biblical, and it led to countless "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs of the late 90s and early 2000s. Confusing, demeaning, and more than a little offensive.]
Anyway, let's finally get to the verse!
This verse uses a very simple figure. Their relationship is like a vineyard (garden). And one of the most destructive things for a vineyard in ancient Israel was the red fox. These foxes were (are) small -- max 20 pounds -- and very agile. They could climb a stone wall with no trouble (see Nehemiah 4:3). You might remember from our study in Proverbs that ancient Jews had not yet discovered trellises, so they let their vines grow along the ground. Easy pickings for a fox. In many ways, foxes were worse than bears or deer because normal walls did not stop them.
Scholars cannot agree if the man or woman is speaking this verse, but it doesn't change the meaning. The fact that "catch" is plural doesn't mean that the speaker is speaking to the friends; in Hebrew, a plural verb can also be an intensive singular. In other words, it's very important to this couple that they catch the destructive foxes.
What does this mean? It means that they are on the lookout for the relationship problems that could ruin their upcoming wedding. The phrase "in bloom" implies that their relationship, particularly the sexual expression thereof, was just starting, so the common understanding is they are currently betrothed. Discussion topic: If you're married, think back on your engagement. What were the problems you encountered? Did anything make you worried about your upcoming wedding?
There are some problems unique to engaged couples. One such problem (that we will read in 3:5) is the temptation to become sexually involved before marriage. I certainly remember struggling with that, and we were only engaged for 3 months! But I would say that most of the things we could talk about apply to any and every relationship. Failures to communicate. Failures to appreciate the other. Doubts and insecurities. The inevitable clash of two different upbringings. These two lovers made a concerted effort to repulse every "fox".
Another discussion topic: how do the "foxes" change when you are married? Is it any less important to "catch the foxes" after the wedding?
Part 2: Build Trust (Song 2:16-17)
My love is mine and I am his; he feeds among the lilies. Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn around, my love, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the divided mountains.
Okay, y'all, let's get this out of the way. This passage, like so many in the Song, is one giant sexual innuendo. The woman likens her man to a gazelle, a virile animal capable of impressive feats of strength and agility. In the Ancient Near East, gazelles did graze on lilies and other flowers. Now, note that in 2:1-2, both the woman and the man liken her to a lily. Soooo, she's inviting her gazelle to graze among her lilies and climb on the divided mountains. (The Hebrew is "mountains of Bethar", which isn't a real place. The root word implies that it means "mountains divided in two".) "Until the day breaks" is literally "until the day breathes" which was a common poetic figure for "morning". Whatever she's asking for is happening all night long.
This is rather intense, extremely personal, and I'd like to move on now.
Lifeway gets its lesson point from the first part of the verse: "My love is mine and I am his". It's a truly beautiful way of speaking of God-intended mutuality and exclusivity. Consider her boldness in saying this! "My man is mine; he has no interest in anyone else." And yet it's also true! She can say it because she knows it. It's amazing, and it's the way that trust in a marriage (or engagement) relationship is supposed to be.
Now -- the important question. Didn't I just say that these two aren't married yet? Is this passage promoting premarital sex? Of course not! We have to take this Song as a whole. Remember that I characterized it as romantic poetry, filled with a combination of thoughts, longings, and fantasies. This young woman is fantasizing about her soon-to-be-real sexual relationship with her soon-to-be-husband.
Is there something wrong with that kind of fantasizing? There doesn't have to be.
Having a sexual desire for the person you're engaged to is not bad or wrong! It's not only normal, it's healthy! (As I mentioned in our time in Proverbs, it's also healthy for long-married couples to continue to have sexual desire for one another.) Unfortunately, our sex-sick culture has declared to our young people that they should not wait to fulfill their every sexual desire. They should have sex with whomever they want whenever they want and however they want. And what a disaster that has been for our world.
In Romans 1, Paul explained that in response to humanity's sexual depravity, God gave them over even more fully "in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another" (1:24) with the end result that "they have become filled with every kind of wickedness" (1:29). Just as addicts need to consume larger doses to achieve the same high (as their bodies build up resistance to the effect of the drug), so also sexual sinners need to engage in more and stranger to fulfill their sexual longings. They become calloused to the internal effect of their own debauchery, not even realizing the devastation it wreaks on their lives.
But that's what the next few verses are about...
Part 3: Restraint Required (3:1-5)
In my bed at night I sought the one I love; I sought him, but did not find him. 2 I will arise now and go about the city, through the streets and the plazas. I will seek the one I love. I sought him, but did not find him. 3 The guards who go about the city found me. I asked them, “Have you seen the one I love?” 4 I had just passed them when I found the one I love. I held on to him and would not let him go until I brought him to my mother’s house— to the chamber of the one who conceived me. 5 Young women of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and the wild does of the field, do not stir up or awaken love until the appropriate time.
So, this is a strange passage. If you try to take it literally, it doesn't make any sense. The reason there are guards in the city is because it is dangerous! Are we really to think that a beautiful young woman of marrying age is wandering around a dangerous city at night, on foot, by herself? So, it's either describing a dream or a fantasy (or both). I say that, like 5:2-8 (which we will talk about next week), this is a dream which is more like a nightmare.
The woman wants her lover to be in her bed with her, but he isn't. In fact, she can't find him anywhere. Oh, no! Has he left me? Am I all alone? (Don't tell me that you never had a fear that your spouse wasn't going to change his/her mind and walk out on your engagement.) For this woman, as strong as their love is and as confident as she is about his commitment to her, her nightmare is still that he will leave her. We all know that Satan whispers doubts that manifest themselves in our dreams. That's what this woman has experienced. (I'm really struggling with an appropriate place for a Peanuts cartoon in this lesson, so let's go with...)
But this was a particularly vivid nightmare that stuck with her. She searched and searched for him throughout the city, even encountering the city guards (which may or may not represent her internal guards of sexual purity, Inception-style). (Note that her experience with these guards will be very different in her next dream experience in 5:7!) Eventually, she found him and held on to him. The verb tense is instructive -- "held on to him" is perfect, meaning a completed action; "not let him go" is imperfect, meaning an ongoing action. He wasn't going to leave her sight ever again!
The reference to her mother's house could mean a few things. It might have been simple possessive -- her house, her life, her mother, her security. He wasn't leaving her life. More likely, it had to do with the upcoming wedding. Elsewhere in the Bible (Gen 24:28, Ruth 1:8) the bride's mother's house was where wedding plans were made. However, the explicit reference to "the chamber of the one who conceived me" strongly implies that she has procreation on the brain. This tightly parallels what she says to him in 8:5
I awakened you under the apricot tree. There your mother conceived you; there she conceived and gave you birth.
She desired to conceive a child in the place where she was conceived and where he was conceived. Now, if that seems perverted to you, that's because our culture has made us assume that every sexual desire is perverted. She's not thinking about anything like that -- this is the simple and beautiful cycle of life. She wants him to be totally integrated into her life just as she wants to be completely a part of his (from conception until death).
Verse 5 is a hard break from her nightmare-turned-fantasy. She comes to herself and acknowledges that this desire was going too far! Verse 5 is an exact repeat of 2:7 (and repeated in 8:4) -- once you start dwelling on your desires and even making plans how you might act on them, you are putting yourself in a position to sin. That makes me think of one of my favorite Martin Luther quotes about temptation: "you cannot prevent birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair". Dwelling on her sexual desire for her betrothed -- a desire she knows she cannot fulfill yet -- puts her in a dangerous place. And that's why she cuts off this fantasy as abruptly as she does. It was the right thing to do.
What she says isn't for the young women alone, but for all people who have not been married yet. I've already pointed out the masculine referent for gazelles; "doe" is quite intentionally feminine. "Young men and women, do not stir up your desires for sexual intimacy before you can rightly experience it (i.e. being married)."
God gave humans the ability to enjoy sex, but He also gave us the boundary of marriage.
That's why I think this book is so helpful and important today. Christians need to know that intense sexual desires don't have to be wrong and perverted. They're a part of being human! BUT those desires are biblical and godly ONLY if they are for the one you marry, and they should only be pursued with that one person AFTER you are wedded.
Application. For those who are engaged or married, the application is direct: are you pure? are you committed? are you actively protecting your relationship? For those of you not yet engaged, the application is still the same: are you keeping yourself sexually pure? do you know how to put a lid on your desires?
For everybody, there's an additional application that reminds us that the Bible routinely holds up a committed marriage relationship as a picture of what our relationship with God could be like. Are you remaining pure and committed to your relationship with God?
Let me actually continue for a little bit for those of you curious about the next two chapters. The very next thing that happens is an over-the-top appearance by Solomon in his fancy chariot attended by his royal entourage. What's this doing here? Well, it's why some Bible scholars believe the "he" in the Song is Solomon himself -- as in, Solomon shows up and starts talking to the woman in 4:1. And that's certainly possible; I have no problem with making Solomon the "he" of the Song. But I don't think it's the best explanation for what's happening. Indeed, those who interpret the Song as a drama say that this is Act 2: Solomon appears in his fancy chariot in an attempt to woo the woman away to his harem, a tension that won't be resolved until the very last verses.
I think this is more of a "Cinderella's Fantasy". "Solomon's carriage" is mentioned in both verses 7 and 9, but it's actually two different words. In verse 7, it refers to the "royal banqueting couch" (or even "royal bed"!); in verse 9, it refers to the "bridal litter". This is, I believe, every girl's dream wedding day. The royal procession shows up at her house to take her to her wedding in full royal regalia -- just like Cinderella's coach. (I personally think the Song is so much more meaningful not being about Solomon. It's just two normal people sharing a love that's magical -- "he makes me feel like a queen". Doesn't that connect better with us than Solomon overwhelming this woman with wealth and glory?)
Along those lines, 4:1-7 read very much like an ancient "wasf", which was a traditional song sung by the groom to the bride on the wedding night, praising her beauty. There have been examples of this -- that are really similar to 4:1-7 -- in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Then, verses 4:8-5:1 read very, very much like what the newly-married couple would want to say to each other at the end of the wedding feast, with the guests gladly dismissing them to consummate their marriage. It's the picture-perfect wedding night.
It does make me wonder if this entire section is her fantasy of what she hopes her wedding/wedding feast/wedding night will be like. Does that change any of the meaning? Not really. Unless she has "imagined" this entire Song, the things her lover says to her in her "dream wedding" echo things he has said to her elsewhere in the song.
So anyway, that's what the next couple of chapters are about.