Captivated by Love
The book is fascinating, to say the least. The very first words you read (after the title) are these: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth–for your love is more delightful than wine.”
It is a woman speaking, and before the end of the first page, she is whispering, “My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.”
The man replies, “How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are like doves.”
And she responds, “How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant.” (1: 2, 13, 15, 16)
As you read on, the scenes become even more passionate. The woman finds her lover irresistible from head to toe, and she describes in detail why she thinks he is so good looking: his tanned face, his wavy black hair, his clear eyes, his cheeks, his moist lips, his strong arms, his body, his sturdy legs. She thinks he is great to look at, and when she thinks about his kisses, she sighs, “His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely” (5:10-16).
And the feeling is mutual. The man likes to feast his eyes on the woman. He thinks she is exquisite; he admires the entire length of her body, and praises everything he sees. In glowing terms he compliments her “beautiful” feet, her “graceful legs,” her navel, her waist, her breasts, her neck, her eyes, her nose, the way she carries her head, even her hair (7:1-5). After all these compliments, he says,
“How beautiful you are and how pleasing, O love, with all your delights! Your stature is like that of the palm [tree], and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.’ May your breasts be like the clusters of the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.”
And she responds:
“May the wine go straight to my lover, flowing gently over his lips and teeth. I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me. Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages.” (7:6-11)
Before I read you any more excerpts from this book, I should probably tell you what book I’m quoting from, in case you don’t already know. The title of this little volume is The Song of Songs, and it’s one of the 66 books included in the Bible. That’s right, the Holy Bible. There’s an entire volume of passionate, sometimes even erotic, love poetry included in the Word of God.
Maybe that surprises you. Perhaps you’ve been under the impression that the Bible takes a negative attitude toward romance and sex, but if so, you’re mistaken. Of course, Song of Songs is nothing like a sleazy novel or a steamy video, and it’s not something Dr. Ruth would have written. But it’s not exactly prudish, either. Song of Songs is very frank in its expressions of romantic love and desire. It’s not vulgar, but it is vibrant; it’s not sleazy, but it is sensual, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The fact that the Song of Songs is part of the Bible, tells us that there is something very wonderful and very healthy in the passionate feelings and the powerful physical attraction between two people in love.
And that’s an important message for us to hear. The Christian faith is not ashamed of the human body; it portrays sexuality as God’s gift. The Bible openly celebrates erotic passion and shows how it can be enjoyed as an expression of the deepest and most delightful intimacy. When we hear these two lovers express their passion and their physical desire for each other, we need to remember that they aren’t just in lust; they are in love.
Sometimes they just want to spend time together. In chapter 2 of the Song of Songs, the woman fondly remembers her man’s invitation to take a romantic nature walk and enjoy the first signs of spring with him:
“Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”
These lovers know much more than enjoying each other’s bodies. They also know how to be romantic together.
And even more important than that, they know the power of love: fierce, loyal, undying love. In chapter 8 the woman says,
“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned” (8:6-7).
Romance and undying love provide a beautiful context for the erotic love celebrated in the Song of Songs. The Bible doesn’t teach that making love is dirty or shameful. In fact, it says quite the opposite.
At the very beginning of the Bible, where we learn about the creation of the first man and the first woman, it says that God designed the two to become one flesh, and then it says, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). God created Adam and Eve to delight in each other, to enjoy each other, to make love, and to feel no sense of shame in doing so. That’s how God originally intended it, and at its best, the love between a man and a woman, including their physical union, is still among the most marvelous of all God’s gifts.
So why would anyone think that the Bible frowns on the physical expressions of love? Perhaps one reason is that the Bible speaks very forcefully against immorality. It prohibits sex between people who are not married; it repeatedly attacks the evil of adultery; it says that homosexual acts are sinful; and the Bible certainly condemns horrendous crimes such as molesting children and incest and rape. God’s Word repeatedly opposes the misuse and abuse of sex, but that doesn’t mean the Bible opposes sex.
As one Christian author puts it, “If I object to boys who steal my nectarines, must I be supposed to disapprove of nectarines in general? Or even of boys in general? It might, you know, be stealing that I disapproved of.” The Bible doesn’t disapprove of sex. It disapproves only of stealing sex outside a lifelong commitment of love.
Committed and Exclusive
In Proverbs 5, the Bible gives a strong warning against the dangers of being seduced into adultery, but does it say that making love is wrong? Far from it. After all the warnings, Proverbs 5 goes on to say, “May you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer–may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love” (5:18-19). Isn’t that last phrase marvelous? “Captivated by love!” Not trapped by immorality, but captivated by the love of a spouse. The person who is captivated by love is free to enjoy all of its delights and pleasures without fear or guilt.
This is apparent in the Song of Songs. When the man looks at the woman, he sees a body that he finds very attractive, but that’s not all he sees. He sees a sister and a bride. Of course she isn’t really his sister, but the man has the same respect, the same understanding, the same appreciation of the woman’s personality that he would have for his sister. And she is his bride: he is bound to her in a lifelong commitment. But does that take the excitement and the passion out of their relationship? Far from it! Listen to what he says:
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume than any spice! Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride… You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. (Song of Songs 4:9-12)
The man rejoices in the fact that the woman is locked up and sealed, that she is available to no one else, that she belongs to him alone, and that she always will.
This isn’t a woman who has given her body to just anyone who wants it. She says, “My own vineyard is mine to give” (8:12), and so when she finally chooses to give herself to the man she marries, he realizes that he is receiving a tremendous gift. There’s something very special when he says, “You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride” and she responds, “Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits” (4:12, 16). When you keep your garden locked up to everyone except the person you marry, the honeymoon is all the sweeter. Making love is so precious that it’s worth waiting for. It is most exciting and special when two people have saved themselves exclusively for each other and first discover the pleasures of love with each other.
The most passionate love is by its very nature deeply committed, and it is exclusive. One traditional wedding vow includes the words, “forsaking all others, as long as we both shall live,” and that’s still as good a way of putting it as any. A relationship is most romantic when two people have declared their lifelong commitment to each other.
When two people are captivated by love, they have a powerful sense of belonging to each other. They are jealous. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they are paranoid or suspicious, but genuine love is very possessive in a positive sense. The woman says, “My lover is mine and I am his” (2:16). Later she says, “I am my lover’s, and my lover is mine” (6:3). And yet again: “I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me” (7:10). Because she feels this way, she says, “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy as unyielding as the grave” (8:6). People who have a healthy and passionate marriage may enjoy friendships with many other people, but their special romantic feelings and physical intimacy are reserved for each other.
Marriage is to making love what a fireplace is to fire. Fire can be extremely destructive, but it is good and warm and romantic when it burns inside a fireplace. In the same way, sex is very volatile and dangerous and has ruined many lives, but in the right context, it is very good.
Unfortunately, Christians have often tried to sidestep the passionate poetry that we find in the Song of Songs. Throughout the history of the church, some have tried to spiritualize this book. They say that it is actually not talking about erotic love, but is using figures of speech to describe spiritual love for God. I’ve even been told by one person that the Song of Songs is filthy and that it doesn’t belong in the Bible.
But it does belong in the Bible, and it is about erotic love, and we can’t afford to ignore it. Christian preachers and parents sometimes become so busy condemning immorality that we forget to tell our children that romance and physical attraction are enchanting gifts of God. Perhaps the Song of Songs can help us to stop treating sexuality as something that is dirty and dark and shameful, and instead to say joyfully and emphatically that it is God’s idea, and that God’s way is the only way to really enjoy it to the full.
The Bible sings about the charms and pleasures of a love that unites two bodies and two lives. That’s very different from the philosophy of people like Wilt Chamberlain or Madonna, where more is better, where God’s good gift is nothing more than anatomy, where hormones replace poetry, and conquest replaces tenderness. It’s the difference between “making love” and merely “having sex.”
We need to avoid the exploitation of sexuality, but at the same time we need to affirm an appreciation of it. Young people need to know that the honeymoon is so good that it’s worth waiting for. And once two people are married, let’s not pretend that physical attraction isn’t important. It’s clear in the Bible that making love is not just a necessary evil in the process of reproduction. It’s not something which God grudgingly allows married people to do. It is the culmination of married love in which the two become one flesh, in which the passion of love is expressed in physical intimacy.
The physical enjoyment of marriage is very important. A married man needs to appreciate the charms of his wife, and she needs to find him appealing. It’s important that they express this to each other through words and through physical intimacy. In the New Testament, the Bible doesn’t merely permit a husband and wife to make love. It commands them to do so. Once people are married, that is one of their regular duties, and it should also be one of their great delights. In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul writes,
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
I should add that in this same chapter Paul says that singleness is also an honorable way of life, and he points out that those who have no marital attachments have special freedom to serve the Lord. Paul himself was not married, and for that matter, neither was Jesus, so we shouldn’t suppose that the beauty of married love is an essential part of everyone’s life. It’s okay to be single and serve God in your singleness.
But here I want to emphasize what the Bible says to married people: that long-term abstinence is not normal or healthy in a marriage relationship, and that your body belongs not only to you, but also to your spouse. As the greatest love song puts it: “I am my lover’s, and my lover is mine” (6:3).
We saw earlier how the man compliments his lover’s beauty, and how she in turn says how handsome he is. Married lovers affirm each other’s attractiveness and enjoy each other’s bodies.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the best marriages and the most enjoyable physical relationships occur only when the two people involved look like movie stars. You can find someone very attractive even if they never make the cover of a magazine. It’s not that love is blind; it just opens your eyes to see what someone else might not see. Love may open your eyes to see a beauty that a fashion photographer might miss. In chapter 6 of the Song of Songs, the man says how beautiful his darling is. There are plenty of glamorous women around, he says, “but my dove, my perfect one, is unique” (6:9). Does that mean she would win first in a beauty contest? Not necessarily, but if her man was judging, she would.
Have you ever noticed a couple who can’t seem take their eyes off each other, and who always seem to be holding hands? They seem to think that they have the greatest catch in the world, and yet if you just look at them as an impartial observer, you’re not very impressed by their looks. You might think that she’s a bit overweight, or that he isn’t exactly built like Arnold Schwartzenegger, and their faces won’t win any prizes, either. But when they look at each other, they see the most attractive person in the world. They see a special person whom they love and a splendid body that they enjoy.
Some of the most romantic people I’ve seen are far too old to be considered beautiful in our youth-oriented culture. Sometimes they are stooped from age, and have skin that is old and wrinkled. But they have spent a lifetime loving and enjoying each other, and the romance is still alive. If you could read the old man’s mind when he looks at his wife, you’d hear him thinking, “My dove, my perfect one, is unique.” The way he looks at her and squeezes her hand says, “How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are like doves.” And her adoring looks seems to say, “How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming!” Young or old, love has its own way of seeing.
It’s good for us to celebrate love and romance and passion. If you’re dating right now, I hope you enjoy the thrill and the anticipation and desire of being in love. But remember that sexual intimacy is too precious and too dangerous to enjoy outside of marriage. Wait until you are captivated by married love. The honeymoon is worth waiting for.
And if you’re already married, I hope that you’re not just trapped in a marriage, but that you truly are captivated by love. If not, you may need to rekindle the passion and rediscover the excitement. Open your eyes once again to see the person you once found so exciting. Make your marriage a romantic one. Love is worth singing about and celebrating.
And as we celebrate the passionate feelings that lovers have for each other, we also celebrate an even greater love. The Bible compares married love to the love of Jesus for his people (Ephesians 5:22-33). Obviously, there are important differences, but our feelings of tenderness, loyalty, and jealousy help us to understand the intensity of Jesus’ love for us. As we rejoice in the gift of faithful, passionate love, we are reminded of a love that is even more intense. There is nothing so wonderful or so powerful as the love of Jesus for his church. So whether you are captivated by a spouse’s love or not, you need to be captivated by Jesus’ love.
Father in heaven, thank you for creating us male and female, and for the love that unites two bodies and two lives. Make our love faithful and passionate, and where we have been disappointed or have failed completely, comfort and relieve the pain in our hearts.
And now, Lord, awaken us to the reality of a love that is even greater than married love. Help us feel the intensity of the eternal love of Jesus, to know that you are love, and in return to love you above all. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.