One last week in Song of Songs. We follow this young couple through what might be their first marital spat and its devastating effect on her. But I'll take you through the argument to its resolution -- and the couple's unwavering commitment to each other.
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Relationship Problems (or: When the Honeymoon Is Over)
You're going to learn below that I'm having trouble with what to say about these verses. And there's no real consensus to start with. So, here's the most-consensused non-consensus:
Our two young lovers are having issues.
I know, that's scholarly. I went to seminary for a long time to be able to come up with that. Not everyone agrees with this take, but for the sake of starting things off . . .
If you're in a group of married adults, and you think your group is comfortable around one another, ask a very provocative question: "When did you know the honeymoon was over?"
If you're in a group with a lot of singles, make the question more general: "Have you ever been in a serious relationship or friendship that ran into real trouble? What happened?"
Young people need to know that every relationship has rocky patches. If we go into a relationship expecting it to be perfect all the time, we may throw it away at the first sign of trouble and get really depressed.
Being very, very careful with my internet search terms, I researched what young couples today struggle with. I take the internet with lots of salt, but it's the ultimate source for pop culture, which is what I'm looking for. Consider this list from the not-conservative pop culture magazine, Bustle ("9 Relationship Problems You Didn't Realize Were Universal"):
Going through a "dry spell" [intimacy]
Dealing with feelings of jealousy
Not fully listening to one another
Fighting about chores
Experiencing doubts in the relationship
Getting too busy and not spending enough time together
Disagreeing about money
Fighting about your extended families
Hm - that list does seem pretty universal. Let's keep looking. Here's a website (yourtango.com) that asked to share my horoscope and gave me "The 12 Most Common Marriage Problems":
Overstepping personal boundaries
Lacking complete communication
Letting things go in the bedroom
Not being focused on your spouse
Fighting about money
Not appreciating one another
Letting technology interfere
Lack of trust
All right, some hits and misses in there. But let's get some answers firsthand. How about the hashtag #newlywedproblems on Twitter:
"Get sick, everyone makes jokes about morning sickness! No people I don't have a bun in the oven!"
"How my mom ends our phone conversations: "I want grandkids. I love you. Bye.""
"Having the 'what to do for Christmas' discussion"
"Who are these people who have room to keep 1/3 of a cake in the freezer for a year and what do they do w/ their leftovers?"
"Whoever proposes first should also get to be the one who holds the remote for the first year of marriage."
"My Hubby can see a deer in a field from yds away, but he can't see his clothes on the floor that he keeps stepping over."
"I hear the 1st year of marriage is the hardest, but Jacob just started using "mother of pearl" as a swear. Thoughts & prayers appreciated."
"That moment when you realize that you have Pottery Barn taste with an Ikea budget."
"How is it possible that I'm twice the size of my wife but she manages to take up twice as much bed space as I do?"
"The Tony Awards and the Spurs game are at the same time today. Why would the universe do this to us?"
""You've lost a lot of weight" my grandma-in-law told me. "It must be all the sex" my grandpa-in-law added."
Wow, that took me on a trip down memory lane. Our first few years of marriage had a lot of ups, but it had some challenges (not to mention being extremely poor, new parents in seminary). How about you? What memories does that bring back?
Now, why did I just share all of that with you?
Why do I share any of my opening ideas with you? My hope is that I say something that sparks a thought within you -- maybe something leading to a conversation, something leading to reflection, something that engages your brain with a topic that will come up during our Bible study.
Sadly, the Lifeway lesson does not extend to the solution, so I will conclude (far, far below) with a summary of how our young lovers got through their spat. But we've all been there. Spats are a part of relationships. In fact, you can't spell "relationships" without "spats". (Galaxy brain!)
If we are committed to one another, we can overcome any spat. If we are truly committed to one another, we will think about the other before making decisions (and that's when a marriage really starts humming).
Where We Are in Song of Songs
I tried to put together a summary of the Song, so that even if/when we disagreed on what these verses meant, we could still at least be on the same page about where we were in the Song. Nope. There is no agreement on the structure of the Song. Song of Songs simply cannot be pinned down. (On a side note: I wonder if that's why God wanted this book in the Bible? The experience of love so passionately and cleverly written that it could be seen to apply to couples in almost any relationship stage? In other words, we aren't supposed to "clarify" this song; we simply enjoy it and let it speak to us.)
A number of commentaries I read found three movements in the Song: (1) bride and groom prepare for their wedding, (2) bride and groom profess their love for one another, (3) bride and groom are united in their love. Unfortunately, as you will see in the representative outlines I copied, the agreement does not extend much past that. For example, consider this outline:
The courtship and betrothal (1:2-3:5)
The wedding (3:6-5:1)
The marriage (5:2-8:14)
And this more-fleshed-out version:
The courtship (1:2-3:5)
The procession (3:6-3:11)
The consummation of marriage (4:1-5:1)
The honeymoon ends (5:2-6:13)
The relationship deepens (7:1-8:4)
Love matures (8:5-8:14)
Or how about this one:
The bride thinks about Solomon (1:2-3:5)
The bride anticipates their wedding (3:6-5:1)
The bride dreams of losing Solomon (5:2-6:3)
The bride and groom declare love for one another (6:4-8:14)
The bride and her beloved (1:2-2:7)
The lovers seek one another (2:8-3:5)
The bridegroom pursues the bride (3:6-4:16)
The bride waits for the bridegroom (5:1-7:9)
Their love is consummated (7:10-8:14)
Or my favorite subversion:
The first regret: a doomed meeting (1:2-2:7)
The second regret: a forbidden summons (2:8-3:5)
A third regret: society's norms (3:6-5:8)
A fourth regret: the maiden defends her lover (5:9-8:4)
The power of love (8:5-8:14)
There are similarities between those outlines, but are they identical? Could they even really be about the same song? To some, this song describes the three days around a wedding. To some, this encapsulates a marriage from betrothal until death. To some, this is entirely about the courtship, ending with the wedding. Yikes!
You might remember that last week I described the different approaches to the Song. Some call it a drama, some say it described an actual romantic affair of Solomon's, some say it was written to be a wedding ceremony text. I say that it is a love song. But even if we all agreed on just that, we would not necessarily agree on what the love song meant!
I say all that to say this: I'm not thrilled about Lifeway's choice of verses. I interpret this part of the Song slightly differently than they do, enough so that I'm struggling what I can add that would be helpful. I may just kind of spitball here. (Don't tell my professors.)
That seems to be the tact the Holman Dictionary took. Rather than try to create a literary outline, they created a functional one. That might be the way to go. Consider this interpretive outline:
Longing is a part of love (1:1-8)
Love will not be silent (1:9-2:7)
Spring and love go together (2:8-2:17)
Love is exclusive (3:1-5)
Love is enhanced by friendship (3:6-3:11)
Love sees only the beautiful (4:1-7)
Love involves giving and receiving (4:8-5:1)
Love means risking the possibility of pain (5:2-6:3)
Words fail for expressing love (6:4-7:9)
Love must be given freely (7:10-7:13)
True love is priceless (8:1-8:14)
I'm not sure that outline would hold up to a strict reading, but I can get something useful out of it that sidesteps the unanswerable questions of interpretation -- what the Song teaches us about biblical marital relationships. If you don't know what to do with this passage, you might just focus on some of those 11 statements and study how the Song illustrates them and how the rest of the Bible proves them.
Part 1: The Cry for Companionship (Song 5:6-8)
I opened to my love, but my love had turned and gone away. My heart sank because he had left. I sought him, but did not find him. I called him, but he did not answer. The guards who go about the city found me. They beat and wounded me; they took my cloak from me—the guardians of the walls. Young women of Jerusalem, I charge you, if you find my love, tell him that I am lovesick.
These verses make absolutely no sense out of context. And Lifeway takes them completely out of context. So, here's the context. Remember that last week I described 4:1-7 as a "wasf", a traditional part of a wedding banquet. Then, 4:8-5:1 are the things a newlywed couple would say when they're ready to leave the banquet and get on with consummating their marriage. The guests encourage them with a "go, drink your fill of love, you crazy lovebirds" (5:1, paraphrased).
Then we have a really, really strange transition at 5:2. Some people say that this is happening on the night of the "honeymoon". Some say this is a jump forward in time. Some say this actually happened before chapter 4 (inserted as a memory). Some say, as I hinted at last week, that much of this section is fantasy. (In other words, the young woman has been fantasizing her wedding and wedding night with her beloved, and perhaps her fantasy has evolved into another nightmare, like in 3:1.)
Let's go through the lead-in verses:
5:1 Man: I have come to my garden—my sister, my bride. I gather my myrrh with my spices. I eat my honeycomb with my honey. I drink my wine with my milk. Guests: Eat, friends! Drink, be intoxicated with caresses!
Here's the end of the wedding banquet. This is as charged as a statement can be. The groom is ready to consummate the marriage.
5:2 Woman: I was sleeping, but my heart was awake. A sound! My love was knocking! Man: Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my perfect one. For my head is drenched with dew, my hair with droplets of the night.
But then this happens. How we understand 5:6-8 depends entirely on how we interpret this verse. There are some things we can say with certainty. "I was sleeping, but my heart was awake" is a poetic way to describe dreaming. Does this mean that what follows was in her dream or that it woke her up? We don't know.
We do know this: "A sound! My love!" is the same thing she said in 2:8. BUT, in 2:8, the woman was extremely excited that her lover has come. Here in 5:2, she's pretty apathetic. Why? The man is being pretty suggestive here. There's a lot of insinuation going on in the Hebrew. But she's about to be surprisingly dismissive.
3 Woman: I have taken off my clothing. How can I put it back on? I have washed my feet. How can I get them dirty?
Not just dismissive, I think the woman is being coy. She's playing with him. But maybe this isn't good-natured flirting; if it is, he takes it the wrong way.
4 My love thrust his hand through the opening, and my feelings were stirred for him. 5 I rose to open for my love. My hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh on the handles of the bolt.
I can't tell you how uncomfortable I am talking about these verses in mixed company. There's very clear double entendre in the Hebrew. That's not to say there isn't a literal event happening (even if it is in a dream), but this is written with a lot of suggestion as to why the man came to her room. The word for "hand" is sometimes a euphemism. At the same time, there is evidence for door bolts and large wooden keys in the Ancient Near East. Apparently, there would be a hole in the wall large enough to stick your hand through with the key and unlock it from the inside. (Note: this is also what you would do when you wanted to keep some secured -- put them in such a room and don't give them the key.)
I have SO MANY QUESTIONS.
If this is their wedding night, as some say, why isn't the groom with the bride? Why is she surprised when he comes to her? This passage is one of the reasons why others say that Solomon wrote this about a sexual encounter with a favorite concubine. It's also possible that we have jumped ahead a few nights, but that doesn't explain to me why she's so dismissive and coy with the man.
Why is she being coy? She's playing hard-to-get. But if they've just gotten married, why?? What happened? I wonder if she's taken bad advice from some friends who suggested that she use sexual deprivation as a control method, only to change her mind right after the damage had been done.
How would she be soiling her feet if she didn't have to go outside? Is this an ancient Hebrew "I have to wash my hair" excuse?
Why did the lover give up so easily? The whole encounter is kind of creepy -- he tries to forcibly enter her room but gives up because he doesn't have the key.
And that doesn't even get in to the actual passage we're covering. So let me describe the ways I think this entire passage could be understood:
First, I reject the notion that this is an actual encounter before their wedding. The evidence for a proper, biblical appreciation for sex is too strong in the rest of this Song.
Maybe this is an actual event that takes place weeks or months after the wedding. We've simply jumped forward in time to an early, memorable "spat" in their marriage. It would be like you describing your early married life by telling some highlights/lowlights.
Maybe this is another dream/fantasy/nightmare that she had right before the wedding day. I would want to lean that direction, but I don't know when we leave the fantasy and return to reality. This event flows directly into the "kiss and make up" section that carries the song to its ending.
Or, maaaaaybe this is a poetry-ified version of a real, early spat they had that didn't literally end with her being beaten in the streets.
If you want to go with one of those, please do. The specifics of interpretation don't really change the leaning or intent of the Song.
That said, here's what I really think this passage is about. 5:2-5:7 is all euphemism. I'm going to say that we jumped ahead maybe a few days after the wedding, and for some reason, the woman is feeling salty. We don't know why. Maybe her man is staying out later than she thinks he should. Anyway, he's not literally knocking on a door. He's just coming to bed. He's interested in being intimate. But she's basically already fallen asleep and is putting him off. He keeps trying, but by the time she has warmed up to it, he has stormed out of the bedroom. Of course, she gets very upset by this, particularly out of guilt. Consequently, the "watchmen" aren't real. I think they are based on the watchmen from her earlier dream (that we read last week). (Remember, a beautiful, young woman doesn't need to be wandering the streets of a dangerous city at night by herself in the first place!) Here's where I go with that. Your Leader Guide picks up on the imagery of the city walls being representative of God's law. These watchmen are kind of like her Bible-inspired conscience. Whatever she did was contrary to God's law, and she felt guilty about it.
So what could she have done?
It might be as simple as shutting down his sexual advances. Let me tread very lightly here -- there's a lot that could be going on that we don't read about. But if this is all that we know, then what Paul said comes to mind in 1 Corinthians 7:
“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because sexual immorality is so common, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman should have sexual relations with her own husband. A husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband. A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another—except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all people were as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one person has this gift, another has that.
We've established that these two young lovers are really into one another. And the man is being built up as a model groom. So I don't think we should speculate that he's come home late and drunk and she's fed up with it. Rather, he was just doing a thing that husbands do and she put him off for no good reason. And she knew it. And I think that's the key; she knew she had some ulterior motive that didn't hold up, but by the time she admitted it, he had already left (in a huff?).
In summary, one night, she denied his sexual advances for a poor reason. He got mad and left the house. This broke her heart with guilt. Maybe this was their first real spat.
This leads a to an important discussion that I'm not sure how comfortable I would be having in a group (which is why I'm writing it for people to read). Sexual intimacy is a real challenge in many marriages. It was a big enough deal that Paul wrote about it to Christians 2000 years ago. It certainly caused some disagreements early in my marriage! Here are some statistics (take internet statistics or leave them!):
On average, couples have sex 58-68 times per year.
15-20% of couples report having sex 10 or fewer times per year.
80% of those "low-sex" marriage are over the age of 40.
Almost 1/5 of men and 1/3 of women claim to have a minimal sex drive. (!)
The article that reports those statistics goes on to talk about the challenges couples face when they have low desire for physical intimacy with their spouse.
A healthy sex life is a part of healthy marriage. And I'm sure you can see both why (1) I think this is an important topic for married Christians to consider, and (2) I think that this is a topic you should broach with your class only if you know they would be comfortable talking about it. If you aren't sure about that, just give them your thoughts and don't try to start a discussion.
These two lovers had an argument about sex. (They weren't the first; they wouldn't be the last.) It was serious enough that the man left the house to clear his head.
Even if we've not been there, we know couples who have been there. What happens next is critical for the future of that relationship. We've all seen relationships ruined when someone acts impulsively under those trying conditions. So, what did the two lovers do?
Part 2: The Call for Remembering (Song 5:9)
Friends: What makes the one you love better than another, most beautiful of women? What makes him better than another, that you would give us this charge?
They did the right thing. The bride stopped and asked herself why she loved him in the first place. And that is a great way to get through a tough patch. When we focus on the moment, we tend to focus on our own pain and disappointment. But when we take a wider view, we can put our immediate feelings in context.
In this case, there was a lot to love about this man. We know because we've been hearing about it for 4 chapters! (She will remind us anyway in the next few verses.) Sometimes it's a pretty easy thing to remind ourselves of why we got married in the first place. And sometimes that remembering needs to include that "nobody's perfect". If we expect perfection out of our spouse, we will always be disappointed -- not to mention a hypocrite because we're clearly not being perfect for our spouse!
The double-asked of this question sets up some real depth. It's not just "why do you love this man so much?" It's also "if you love this man so much, why did you do what you did?"
And that takes us to an ubiquitous, nearly unanswerable question: "Why do we hurt the ones we love?" It's pretty common. Just about every tv show and movie has at least one instance of it -- saying something we don't really mean for reasons we don't really understand to get a reaction we don't really want. It doesn't make any sense. And of course the real fear is that we will cause lasting damage for a stupid reason. That's certainly what our young bride is fearing!
Part 3: The Crux for Celebration (Song 5:10-16)
10 Woman: My love is fit and strong, notable among ten thousand. 11 His head is purest gold. His hair is wavy and black as a raven. 12 His eyes are like doves beside flowing streams, washed in milk and set like jewels. 13 His cheeks are like beds of spice, mounds of perfume. His lips are lilies, dripping with flowing myrrh. 14 His arms are rods of gold set with beryl. His body is an ivory panel covered with lapis lazuli. 15 His legs are alabaster pillars set on pedestals of pure gold. His presence is like Lebanon, as majestic as the cedars. 16 His mouth is sweetness. He is absolutely desirable. This is my love, and this is my friend, young women of Jerusalem.
So, yeah, I'm just not going to go into much explanation here. She thinks he's hot. Really hot. I don't think you'll have time to take much of this detour, but every generation has that handful of men who get singled out as particularly handsome. Growing up, I heard about Clark Gable and Cary Grant and Robert Redford and James Dean. With the rise of Instagram, "most handsome men" lists take on a more global flair (like 2020's):
But the point is that everyone kind of gets "handsome". (And note that "handsome" and "beautiful" is different from "attractive". I can acknowledge a person's good looks without being attracted to him/her.) This woman finds her man really good looking.
Does this mean that their relationship is entirely superficial?
No. That's the key in verse 16. If you're primarily focused the eye-candy-aspect of your marriage, would you go out of your way to describe your spouse as "your friend"? I don't think you would.
And here's where I would encourage you to take your thoughts and discussion of these verses. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You don't have to married to Chris Evans to think your husband is absolutely desirable! God has set in your heart the desire for your spouse. Desirability is not based on looks alone.
Now -- let me make a side application to us all. Though our spouses should desire us and us alone, it is entirely appropriate for us to work to be desirable. Part of the marital problems I mentioned at the beginning related to "letting things go in the bedroom" stem from when people "let things go in their body". I still care what my wife thinks of my appearance. I still want to be attractive and desirable to her (some days I do better than others). It's a good reminder for all of us that we should want to make our desirability to our spouse a priority.
And that leads to the conclusion that Lifeway doesn't give us. If you have a smoking-hot spouse that you've driven away, shouldn't you be extremely concerned that someone else would love to jump in and take your place? Our young bride was. She was very worried.
We've all had rough disagreements in our marriage. You've probably had one that made you really worried. Early on in our dating, Shelly and I were given the godly advice that if we were ever to argue, neither would ever even mention the word "divorce". It was not an option, so it should never be threatened. I thought it was great advice, and I give that advice to every couple I talk to. It changes the tenor of the argument -- every argument is something that can and must be resolved.
Here's what happens next in the Song:
6:1 - the bride's friends ask her "where has your husband gone?", and there's a bit of tension in the question. They're concerned.
6:2 - the response changes everything: "he's right here with me".
Her response is very sexualized, but I think it's appropriate for her to talk that way. There are so many variations of the "Whose bed have your boots been under?" accusation. But in this case, he's only been in her bed. They made up before either of them could do something really stupid. And that's the point -- they had a tiff, but they stayed true to each other. And that's how it's supposed to work. Marital disagreements happen. Sometimes they can be really tough. But you can work through them and remain true to each other.
So, there are lots of ways you can apply this passage. Celebrate strong marriages. Lead your group to strengthen their commitment to their own marriage as well as to support other couples' marriages. Tell them not to be afraid of (or embarrassed by) romance or strong physical feelings toward one another. Tell them to desire their spouse and to desire to make themselves desirable to their spouse.
Next week, on to Isaiah!