Lest anyone suppose that the Bible is opposed to romance, we have in the Bible not only some romantic narratives and counsel but a love song. Granted, Song of Solomon is not the way we would probably write a love song today. Generally, we would not praise the desirability of our beloved by saying, “You look like a horse.” But once we get the idea of romance, we can learn to communicate in the romantic language of our culture (and maybe love languages of our spouse). (If you’re single but think you might someday marry, treasure up this idea for later.)
Song of Songs communicates in the romance language of its day. That language included depictions of what was considered a romantic setting: the fertility of spring (apples, the voice of the turtledove, etc.) They didn’t think of candlelight dinners; different cultures (and families, and individuals) have different ways of expressing romance.
One time at a Bible study I read from an ancient Egyptian love song and asked the attendees from what book I was reading. They concluded that I was surely reading from the Song of Solomon. That’s because both songs used very similar sorts of romantic language.
That’s even true when comparing one’s beloved to a horse. Some scholars contend that “a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots” (Song 1:9) relates to an ancient battle practice of releasing a mare among enemy stallions, to distract them in battle. At the very least, Egypt was known for its excellent horses. Pharaoh’s mares were the best and the most beautiful.
Obviously we miss the point if we think too prosaically. If you try to draw literally what either partner looked like, you end up with a monstrosity, but the images work wonderfully figuratively. Describing a neck like a tower of ivory or eyes like pools of Heshbon were just graphic ways of praising the beauty and desirability of the features of one who is loved. The lily of the valley and the fairest of ten thousand (which our songs today apply to Jesus as the most desirable of all) were poetic ways of affirming the desirability of the partner.
With the point of such images in mind (you can get the point without understanding all the details), try reading the lines to each other, the husband’s lines to the wife and vice versa, looking at each other’s desirable features. One warning: if you’re just engaged, don’t try this just yet, or at least not for very long. The song is great for getting a couple turned on.
Of course, the song can teach us other matters as well. The song may depict times of misunderstanding and strife between the couple (5:2-6), which does happen sometimes in a marriage (e.g., Gen 16:5; 30:1-2). Appropriate marital passion burns like a fire (Song 8:6). The song has value for marital counseling and the like.
And then there are tidbits here and there that may bless some individuals in their personal relationships with their spouses. For me, since my wife is black, I have special appreciation for Song 1:6, where the bride is said to be black. (Even if in this bride’s case it specifies that she has been in the sun a lot, it means that she started with a fairly dark complexion. By contrast, if I stay in the sun a lot, my skin turns red and peels off!)
Through history, many allegorized this song and applied it to believers’ relationship with Christ. (Keep in mind that some of those doing this allegorizing were celibate clergy. I’m glad they were able to put the song to good use.) And of course Scripture does tell us that we are Christ’s bride (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:31-32; Rev 19:7-8), developing imagery for God and his people already in the Old Testament. So I do not have a problem with praising our Lord’s beauty and desirability most of all. We do, however, need to be careful in how we envision it, since the Song sometimes goes beyond mere praise of attractiveness to figurative depictions of intercourse. It describes the beloved’s breasts; coming into the garden and enjoying the fruits probably connotes intercourse; and so forth. Some apply “his banner over me is love” to the posting of the bloody cloth that proclaims the bride’s virginity after successful first intercourse.
In any case, while one can use it devotionally if one does so with wisdom, those of us who are married should not neglect its original purpose. We should enjoy one another’s beauty, and become accustomed to seeing our spouse as the most beautiful—the standard by which we define beauty. This is not the language of scientific objectivity, but the language of deep subjective commitment. (Perhaps, in more scientific language, we get neurochemically addicted to the welcome sight of our spouse, thinking about the spouse in ways that nourish neurochemical enjoyment.) Granted, we might consider that difficult today than in ancient Israel; today we are inundated with media images that define standards of beauty for our culture, images that imprint too readily in our minds. Still, Solomon was no Christian monogamist: he had many wives (not everything in the song transfers readily to Christians today!) so his depiction of this bride’s beauty is not based on lack of acquaintance with the other gender!
The greatest beauty, of course, is of the heart, what is beautiful in God’s sight (1 Pet 3:4), not the mere beauty of external ornaments, plastic surgery, or what we see on the surface. Scripture praises this other side in Proverbs 31:30: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (NRSV). Whatever our spouse’s attractiveness, we can focus on that, rekindling the desires that may have first brought us together. In the case of arranged marriages, of course, the couple may grow on each other over time.
In either case, biblical marriage is based on firm commitment. Others may have attractive features and praiseworthy attributes, but those are irrelevant to the marriage. Within the firm commitment that protects against betrayal, intimacy flourishes and we are free to explore one another’s beauty. Sharing oneself at the most intimate makes one vulnerable to the deepest hurts in another’s words, but also to the greatest affirmations. Let’s learn what we can from the Song of Solomon and kindle more deeply the flame of romance in our marriages.