May 31, 2017: The Celebration of Intimacy
There is often a kind of awkwardness around the subject of physical intimacy. Maybe it’s just an English thing (and, honestly, we do embarrass easily!). The Bible, I have discovered, is not very British in this regard. The Bible is fully conversant with the facts of life and issues such as physical desire, lust and adultery—and that is just in the book of Genesis. Song of Solomon (also known as Song of Songs) is especially filled with the language and actions of physical marital intimacy. I once took several commentary books on Song of Solomon on a long flight, each of them competing to have the most exotic title! I was searched twice—literally pulled out of the line so as to allow two security officers to go through my carry-on bag and survey my choice of reading material! If you have read this book of the Bible, possibly you came across a line or two and wondered if you were reading too much into the text. The answer is that you probably were not!
So what is this doing in the Bible? There are two reasons that I will focus on in this piece. First, Solomon’s poem is painting a picture for us of what was always intended to be a very rich blessing, a gift that was intended by Almighty God to thoroughly bless us in our marriages. If that is a surprise to us then we can blame Plato. In His misguided view, the “spiritual” was a higher and altogether nobler realm of consciousness and therefore the physical should be eliminated. This is in stark contrast to the passionate embrace we find in the Song of Solomon. Second, the intimacy that is celebrated here is very purposefully inviting us all into an intimacy with God that surpasses anything any of us has ever known. The poem sets out three foundational building blocks for intimacy. One builds upon the other and as they build, they expose the poverty and the danger of the counterfeit.
1. The blessing of mutual surrender and the deceit of lust: This poem is filled with language of mutual surrender. The man and woman repeatedly call each other “my beloved” and “my love” and then “my beloved is mine and I am his.” This is the language of marriage vows (“Do you take this man to be your husband? Do you take this woman to be your wife?”). This is the language of covenant (“I will be your God and you shall be my people” - Jeremiah 7:23).
All of this is in stark contrast to the deceit that is lust. Lust has absolutely nothing to do with mutual surrender and everything to do with self-seeking and self-gratification. Lust kills authentic intimacy because it takes everything and gives up nothing. It does not take much imagination to see how lust destroys its objects. Lust also destroys the person who indulges in it. The notorious Marquis De Sade knew this from the inside: “Lust’s passion will be served; it demands, it militates, tyrannizes.”
In love, Jesus surrendered everything. Jesus, “…did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8). What the Song of Solomon invites us to understand is that authentic, agape love will, by definition, always be self-giving. And Jesus made the first move. He loved us first.
The poem is also telling us that if such a self-giving love is to be authentically received, then it requires a response that is also surrendered. Intimacy with God won’t push its way into our hearts. That is not what love does. Intimacy with God is only possible when we respond to His surrender with the surrender of our own lives. I have come to see that the degree of intimacy in any relationship, and especially my relationship with God, is directly proportional to the degree of self-surrender that I am prepared to make. The question, “When have I ever truly experienced God’s love intimately?” should perhaps be preceded by the question, “When have I ever truly surrendered anything to God?”.
2. The blessing of sacred vulnerability and the deceit of exposure: From the perspective of the Bible, a man and a woman coming together in marriage is a picture of God and His people coming together. To symbolize this joining together, Jewish people, for thousands of years, have taken a prayer shawl, fastened the four corners to poles and then the wedding attendants held the four poles so that the bride and groom could exchange their vows underneath the canopy (the “chuppa”). The picture is that the same God, the one who hovered over His people, now hovers over the married couple—covering them, protecting them, journeying with them and blessing their marriage. The chuppa represents a sacred, faithful, protected space—a place where the couple are free to be completely vulnerable with each other, a place where they can say to each other “nobody else but you and God will see me with this degree of intimacy.”
It is exactly this sacred vulnerability that is being described in the Song of Solomon. The groom celebrates the beauty of his beloved. He gazes at her and talks about her in a way that is extraordinarily intimate. She allows him to adore her with his eyes, she receives his words and then she reciprocates. There is a sacred vulnerability in their conversation. Tragically, we live in a world that constantly tries to pull this sacred vulnerability out from under the chuppa. But when we do this, we are left with the deceit of exposure and shame.
Our relationship with God was always intended to be founded upon sacred vulnerability—a place where, under His faithful, protected covering, we are free to be completely vulnerable before Him, secure in His love. The Psalmist knew this place and, as if writing from under the chuppa, he said to the Lord, “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance...” (Psalm 139:15-16a). In other words, “nobody else but you, Lord, sees me with this degree of intimacy.” And in this sacred, protected place, under the Lord’s gaze, repentance comes easily. We don’t have to hide in the garden in shame, as Adam and Eve did. Sacred vulnerability allows us to bring our whole lives before God without fear of rejection because we find mercy in Jesus’ self-giving love.
3. The blessing of healing and the deceit of self-degradation: In the beginning of Song of Solomon we find that the bride’s self-esteem was very poor, that she was “damaged goods.” And more than this, that it was beyond her to restore her self-image. The intimate exchanges that follow clearly touch her and what we begin to see is that these exchanges are also the means by which she receives healing. His loving words and his actions restore her self-image. It is as if he has said, “let me tell you who you are and then let me show you who you really are. You are beautiful and you are my beloved.” She no longer disputes this new reality. She steps into it. His love now becomes her identity. And as she is restored in his love, she is able to respond in love. Intimacy that is founded upon mutual surrender and sacred vulnerability will always bring healing.
Contrast this healing with lust. Lust offers a fleeting fix of “pleasure.” Lust offers a temporary distraction from our pain, but will ultimately degrade and destroy us. Frederick Buechner wrote, “Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.”
There is a myth that we carry wounds that will never heal—that like the bride in the opening of this book, we are forever spoiled and are damaged goods. Jesus communicated “let me tell you how I love you” and then through his death on the Cross, “let me show you how I love you.” The prophet Isaiah wrote, “…and with His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). In the selflessness of His love, in this intimacy that is marked by sacred vulnerability, we find that we really can be healed. This means that there is healing for relationships that are not distinguished by sacred vulnerability. There is healing for wounds that we have endured in shame and exposure. Jesus brings healing to us when we are powerless to heal ourselves.
“Arise my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold the winter is past; and the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing has come…” (Song of Solomon 2:10-12a)
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