God & Sex (2): God’s Intention
Song of Songs 4.1-16, 8.6-7
We talked about this at home group this week: when you come to church, there are two opposing views on sex that often collide.
The first view is that of people who didn’t grow up in church: very often, they have grown up hearing that in addition to having children, sex is there simply for our pleasure. It is a means to the end of self-gratification.
The second view is that of people who did grow up in church: they’ve been left with the vague feeling that sex is somehow base or dirty, and we feel guilty for desiring it.
Last week we saw that God has a plan for sex, and that his plan is better than we often imagine. God created sex for having children, absolutely—but he didn’t have to make it as good as it is. He didn’t have to make it as powerful as it is.
We saw last week that the reason God made sex this intensely pleasurable experience is so that we might have an experience to help us understand the wonderfulness of union with Christ.
All that being said, last week I did something that we learn not to do when we learn to preach: I gave zero application. I asked this question at the end of the sermon: “Knowing that our sexual lives are not mainly about us, but are there to teach us about our relationship with him, how do we live faithfully as sexual beings reconciled to God?” That’s the question we want to try and answer in the next couple weeks.
So this week we’re going to look at the framework the Bible gives us for sex, and we’re going to try to do something I’ve rarely heard done in church: we’re going to hold off talking about sexual sin for now. So often in church, any time sex comes up, it is always in negative terms. We have loads to say about sexual acts or thoughts that the Bible would call sinful, and very little to say about sexual acts or thoughts that the Bible calls good.
No matter how true much of the talk of sexual sin may be, speaking almost exclusively about sexual sin often leaves us with the very untrue feeling that sex is inherently sinful. And the Bible says that’s not the case.
So before we talk about sexual sin (which we’ll get to next week), today I’d like to try and paint a positive, biblical picture of sexuality. And it’s easy to do: in the Bible, sex in itself is overwhelmingly positive, a gift God has given his people, to be used the way he created it.
And we see one thing throughout the whole of the Bible—we’ll talk about it more next week, but it needs to be mentioned briefly here. Every time sex is spoken of positively, every time God approves of sexual union between two people, it is without exception within a very clear framework: one man and one woman, for the rest of their lives, within the covenant of marriage.
That’s the context in which God designed sex to function. We often imagine that as a hindering framework, since it severely limits the opportunities for sexual partners and experience. But that assumption is 100% wrong.
To see that, we’re going to go to the Song of Songs, chapter 4.
Sex in Marriage (Song of Songs 4)
A word on the book itself before we get started.
The Song of Songs (otherwise known as the Song of Solomon) is a difficult book to crack, because it tells a story that we somehow feel shouldn’t be in the Bible. It tells the story of King Solomon’s courtship, marriage and sexual relations with his bride.
The marriage and sexual relationship we see described in the Song of Solomon give us God’s ideal picture of how what he intended for human beings’ romantic relationships.
So what do we find there?
We begin with an initial attraction between King Solomon and a young woman in chapter 1—the woman is a shepherdess, and she is somewhat insecure about her appearance: she works in the fields, and it shows.
And yet the king has noticed her, and finds her beautiful. And wonder of wonders, she finds him beautiful as well.
In chapter 2, we see their attraction grow for one another: they speak together and are crazy about each other. They get to know each other well enough to know that they desire each other, for life.
In chapter 3 the shepherdess extols her young sisters and friends to do as she did and wait the proper time until awakening their love for a man. And her patience is rewarded: in v. 11, we arrive at the day of the wedding between the shepherdess and the king.
Chapter 4 describes what happens immediately after: the wedding night. Up to this point the two of them had never touched one another in a sexual way; but now that they are married, they are going to enjoy each other for the first time.
I don’t want to put any undue pressure on the guys, but we’ll see that the guy takes the lead here. When it comes to the actual act, it is Solomon who initiates. That idea makes a lot of women uncomfortable, because they’ve seen what happens when guys take the lead, particularly in this area: at best, they are clumsy and selfish, and at worst, they are abusive.
Ladies, let me reassure you: Solomon teaches men well here. This chapter describes sex done rightly in such a way that no woman would say it doesn’t sound wonderful (unless they have a profoundly twisted idea of what sex is).
We’re going to go through the verses, bit by bit, and notice the different elements which characterize the way Solomon goes about this—what makes up God's ideal picture of what sex should be. (Note: I'm borrowing the headings here from Matt Chandler’s book The Mingling of Souls, which contains an excellent exposition of this chapter.)
The first thing we see is that sex as God intended it is romantic.
Romance (v. 1-4)
1 Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
behold, you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
leaping down the slopes of Gilead.
2 Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them has lost its young.
3 Your lips are like a scarlet thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
4 Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in rows of stone;
on it hang a thousand shields,
all of them shields of warriors.
So Solomon and his bride are married now—and they are coming together to the marriage bed for the first time.
If you have never read this book, you should know that the language can lose us a bit here: if I told my wife her hair was like a flock of goats, I might get slugged. Solomon is using poetic language appropriate for his place and time.
Here’s the point.
On the night of his wedding, Solomon is finally alone with his wife, for the first time. He sees her, and he is captivated by her beauty. So what does he do? He tells her what he sees.
And he doesn’t just say, “You’re pretty.” He breaks out the best poetry in his arsenal.
It would be tempting to see these verses as mere poetic license—as Solomon trying to conjure up something pretty for us to read. But there is deep logic in what he doing here. He is profoundly romantic with his new bride, and the romance he shows frees her to respond to it.
Put yourself in his shoes—he has a bride whom he knows (as we see in previous chapters in the book) is insecure about her body and her looks. So what does he do? He romances her; he reassures her; he reminds her of why he is here with her in the first place. He starts at her eyes and he lists, little by little, all the things he loves about her face, and her body, and why.
And as he does this, what do you think happened to whatever insecurity she may still have? How would you feel, if you were nervous about being really seen for the first time by your husband, and you heard him deliver a long and passionate soliloquy about how beautiful he thinks you are?
Solomon never assumes his wife is his property, nor does he assume that because he’s ready to go, she is too. He knows what she needs to feel beautiful and safe, and he takes his time to show her that to him, she is beautiful, and with him, she is safe.
Gentleness (v. 5)
5 Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
that graze among the lilies.
Again, the imagery can throw us off here—but try to look past the weirdness of it and ask yourself why he chose those images.
Fawns are baby deer: think of Bambi. Have you ever been in the woods, and happened upon a fawn? Everyone has the same reaction (as long as they’re not hunting): you stop, and you look, and if you decide to try to get closer, you tread very carefully. You don’t tackle a fawn. And if you manage to get close to it, you don’t wrap it in a bear hug either.
The point is that he speaks of her breasts as something he wants to approach gently.
To be clear: Solomon looked at his wife’s breasts. And he touched his wife’s breasts. And if you read the passage you’ll see that he wants to do more than that.
But he’s interested in more than just his own sexual gratification. He wants her to feel gratified too, he wants her to feel loved; and because he knows her, he knows better than to just rush in and grab whatever he wants. Because he knows his wife before this moment, he knows how best to serve her sexually, and how to not just get what he’s looking for. He is gentle with her.
passion (v. 6-11)
A cynical person would look at all this and think that this is cold—that Solomon’s just going through the list of things he needs to do to get what he wants—and that this is weak—that romance and gentleness are okay, but kind of boring.
But we see in v. 6 that Solomon is consumed with passion for her. V. 6:
6 Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
I will go away to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense.
In other words, "We’re going to be here a long time. I don’t want to be anywhere else right now.”
We don’t know if Solomon had the stamina to make good on his promises; but his desire is clear. He’s not thinking of his gardens, or his palace, or his army. He’s only here, with her, and that’s exactly where he means to stay.
And he has good reason for wanting to be here for a long time. V. 7:
7 You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you.
8 Come with me from Lebanon, my bride;
come with me from Lebanon.
Depart from the peak of Amana,
from the peak of Senir and Hermon,
from the dens of lions,
from the mountains of leopards.
This is the point where, likely, he is seeing her naked for the first time. In that culture he only would have seen her up to that point in voluminous robes that hid her form—now, he sees her completely for the first time, and he is captivated by her, and he tells her, and he draws her in.
And the way he draws her in is profound. He doesn’t coldly describe “what he likes”, or tell her what he wants her to do—he never mistakes her for a sexual servant.
He tells her what he wants by talking about what she is to him. Translation? “I don’t care what you do, because what I want is not what you can do for me, but you.” V. 9:
9 You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride;
you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
10 How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
11 Your lips drip nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
These verses give us the exact opposite of the way pornography has trained young men to think. Porn teaches guys to think about the act. Solomon teaches men to think about their wife.
Do you see how this kind of talk breaks the idea that we need to experience a lot of sex before getting married so we can be “good at it,” so we can “know what we’re doing”? If you feel this way about your wife, it doesn’t matter if the sex is “good” or not. When she is the object of your desire, then sex is always satisfying, because it’s always with her.
respect (v. 12-15)
Sex can be frustrating for new couples because far too often, the guy doesn’t know how to slow down—he knows what he wants and he charges toward what he wants at a thousand mph.
But here Solomon uses language to speak of his bride that we usually don’t reserve for people, but for holy things: things that are so rare, and so precious, that they inspires reverence in us when we approach it. We don’t rush toward these things; we approach with caution and with care, because they are that important. V. 12:
12 A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a spring locked, a fountain sealed.
13 Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
14 nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all choice spices—
15 a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.
What he lists here—henna, nard, saffron, calamus, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, aloes… These were among the rarest and most precious spices available at the time.
He’s saying that in his bride, he has found this perfect place—this place that has been discovered by no one else, and which is the rarest of beauties he has found.
In other words, when he looks at his wife, and makes love to his wife, and thinks about his wife, there is a reverence in his mind. It is the kind of reverence usually reserved for the holy: to him, she is that rare; she is that precious. And so he will not be in a hurry; he will not use her as a means for release; he will treat her with the honor and care she deserves.
reciprocity (v. 16)
Up to this point, we’ve only heard from Solomon. But now, his bride raises her voice—and shows that in everything he has said of his love for her and his desire for her, she is right there with him. V. 16:
16 Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden,
let its spices flow.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits.
When Solomon talks about his desire for his wife, the feeling is entirely mutual.
I know that sexual reciprocity is a complex problem, and I know it doesn’t just run in one direction: men can be halted here, just as women can. But research shows that one-sided sexual desire is a significant problem for many couples.
One survey gave the surprising result that the vast majority of men weren’t satisfied by merely “getting enough sex”—even when they were getting all the sex they wanted, "three out of four men would still feel empty if their wife wasn’t both engaged and satisfied.”
If you’ve had any experience with this, you know it’s true: sexual reciprocity is satisfying in a way simple sexual release isn’t.
So Solomon’s bride confirms that what he’s feeling is indeed reciprocal. She invites him: Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.
And let’s be clear: this is not a reproach to the ladies. One of the main reasons many women don’t feel the same desire as their husbands is because men have not proven themselves trustworthy and mature enough to deserve it. Men have historically abused their role as men to such an extent that all men are suspect and vaguely undesirable.
Men, we should see this first and foremost a call for us to serve our wives in such a way that they would have no suspicions as to our intentions, or our thoughts, or our desires, so that she might feel free to reciprocate. And consequently, it is a call for women to notice when their husbands serve them well, and to trust that with this man, they are safe, and they are desired.
Brothers and sisters, this is sex the way God intended it. And if all these elements are truly there, it will always be satisfying. If sex really is romantic; if it really is gentle; if it really is passionate; if it really is patient; if it really is reciprocal, it will always be fulfilling.
Now that we’ve seen all that, we need to come full circle, to what we saw last week: that sex is not ultimately about the act itself, but about the gospel.
for life (8.6-7)
Go with me to chapter 8. The bride says to Solomon, v. 6:
6 Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.
7 Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
he would be utterly despised.
This book is highly sexual—it is filled with descriptions of physical beauty, invitations to sexual acts, and joy at the consommation of these acts. And yet we see here something we don’t usually think of when we think of sex.
We see sex as something momentary and occasional: by its very nature, it is something we do for a short time, and afterwards, we move on to something else. But that is not the way it is supposed to be. Even if the act of sex is momentary, the effects of sex are anything but.
Last week we saw that sex as God created it exists not mainly for having kids or for physical pleasure, but to help us understand the depth of the covenant relationship Christ has established with his church.
And what we’ve seen so far applies to that relationship:
Christ did not force his church to love him, but drew her to himself by showing her an irresistible grace.
He does not treat us harshly, as we deserve, but with unthinkable gentleness.
He showed by his life, death and resurrection a passionate love for us which goes far beyond the best love we’ve ever shown.
He declares us holy though we are not, and treats us as such.
He makes us his own, and by his love for us, he awakens in us a reciprocal love for him.
And in these (almost) final verses of the Song of Songs, we see one additional aspect of our relationship with Christ that sex is meant to help us understand: its permanence.
It is no accident that the church has historically gone back to these images to speak of Christ’s love for his church. Because the intention of God for sex is that it be an integral part of what nourishes the covenant of marriage. It is one man, one woman, bound by covenant, one flesh with each other...for as long as they both live.
This is much more than a contractual arrangement between two consenting parties.
This is much more than roommates who sleep together.
This is much more than the gratification of elemental desires.
This man and this woman set one another as a seal upon their hearts—a seal that says with every beat that you are mine, and I am yours. In the context of the book, it is likely that they have been together for a long while now; they have certainly experienced ups and downs in their marriage—the pain of their sin, the pain of failure to make good on promises, the pain of sickness, perhaps the pain of miscarriage or children who have rejected them...
Despite all that, Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
She’s saying, “No matter what comes, I am not going anywhere. And I know you’re not going anywhere. Regardless of the pain we have had to endure so far, or that we will have to endure, I can rest confident of this fact: that you are here, and that you are mine. And you have that same assurance.”
Doesn’t this give new weight to the song we sing?
My name is graven on his hands;
my name is written on his heart.
I know that while in heav’n he stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.
Doesn’t this give new flavor to what Paul said in Romans 8.38-39?
38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is the covenant of marriage—and that covenant is a small reflection of the covenant Christ has made with his church. Christ took me when I was unlovely, when I was unlovable, when I was against him, and he made me his own. More times than I can count, my God has come to me and found me again filthy because of my sin, guilty of adultery against him, and deserving of his judgment.
And yet, because of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, instead of the judgment I deserve, I have heard him say time and again: “I have set you as a seal upon my heart; I have set you as a seal upon my arm. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. My love for you is stronger than death, and it is stronger than sin. So don’t be afraid: you are still mine.”
This is the glorious news of the gospel, brothers and sisters; and it is the wonderful news toward which sex within our marriages is meant to lift our eyes. We are imperfect, and we love imperfectly; but God’s love for his church, Christ’s love for his bride, is not dependent on her ability to be faithful to him. His love is perfect.
Husbands, lead well in this. Take the initiative. Be the sort of man who earns her desire. Be a man of God—a man who protects his wife, who serves his wife, who desires his wife and will be faithful to her, in his thoughts and in his actions, regardless of what you happen to be going through together.
And if you’re not married, then study the Song of Songs well—be a man of God who knows how to love his wife as Christ loved the church. If you love your wife like this, she will see it, and she will be thankful. Because she’ll know that she’s more to you than just a means to an end.
Wives, help your husbands lead well. Go reread the Song of Songs and notice how even if Solomon takes the initiative in chapter 4, the bride in this book is insanely proactive when it comes to the way she loves her husband. Pay attention; see when he leads well, and respond to that leading. And if he doesn’t lead well (because let’s face it—men are idiots and won’t always lead well)…then help him. Talk to him. Do it lovingly, and respectfully, but do it boldly—help him see what you need.
And if you’re not married, ladies: wait for a man who will be this kind of husband. Do not settle for the first moron who tells you you’re pretty. Do not settle for a good sense of humor or a charming personality. Be a woman of God who knows how to wait for a man of God.
And while you wait, all of you—love your first husband, Jesus. Be content in your marriage, or in your singleness, by being satisfied in him. Know that you already have a perfect husband, who never disappoints. The way in which we live our sexual lives always comes back to him, helps us to feel the weight and the joy of our union with him.
Love your wife well; love your husband well; and in so doing, love Christ more deeply, and know him more fully.