Religion and Sexuality
Wisdom on Sex
Having affirmed the book for its ardent, earnest affirmation of sexual love, the preacher may still be asking the question, what does this have to do with wisdom and what themes from it will preach? It helps to view the Song of Songs in the context of other wisdom books in the Hebrew scriptures. The concern of the sages of Israel responsible for the wisdom literature we have in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job was the formation of character of the young in ways that would lead to personal and community harmony and order.
Collated in the tumultuous post-exilic period, Proverbs is filled with instructions for following the path of moderation in physical habits, diligence in work, self-control in speech, prudence in one's choice of companions, respect in one's treatment of the poor, and integrity in relationships. Included in the list of appetites to discipline are sexual appetites. It is very clear that sexual discipline and fidelity are key to the stability and integrity of the community (5:15-23, 6:23-35). Fidelity and sexual discipline are behaviors that make for stable families and communities. The poems of the Song of Songs offer a graphic commendation of fidelity and mutuality in love between the sexes. This is certainly an important message to the young of every generation and quite in keeping with the purposes of Israel's wisdom instruction.
The poems depict the joys of faithful sexual communion with one's beloved. Read in the context of the rest of the wisdom literature, they point to the joys of faithful communion with God. Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs was about more than precepts for living a life of character. It referred to the personification of an aspect of the character of God. In Proverbs this is conveyed through the metaphor of Woman Wisdom (Pr. 1:20-33, 8:22-36, 9:1-6).
Throughout the Bible's Wisdom literature, the young are encouraged to pursue Wisdom in imagery drawn from the realm of human love. Wisdom is compared to a woman who offers food to the youth (Sir. 15:2-3; Pr. 9:5) as the woman in the Song of Songs offers food to her lover (7:13--8:2). The sages advise the youth to love and embrace Wisdom (Pr. 4:6-8; Sir. 6:27). In canonical context, the love poems of the Song of Songs encourage youth to be faithful in their human love-relationships in the framework of their faithful relationship with Wisdom herself.
The Song of Songs portrays, in a series of tender vignettes, the poignancy and pleasure of the divine gift of sexuality. The love poems of the Song of Songs wait to fan the embers of sexual memory of the reader into a flame. They intend to instigate a gracious cycle, in which sensuality and spirituality intermingle, as they always do in the wisdom genre. A girl's verse to her lover from the Egyptian love poem "The Flower Song" expresses this beautifully,
How lovely is my hour with you. This hour flows forth for me forever -- it began when I lay with you. In sorrow and in joy, you have exalted my heart. Do not leave me" (Fox, 26).
The Song of Songs intends to increase our ardor in loving our human beloved. In that loving we experience the good gift of a loving God. And in our gratitude to that loving God, we are energized to love our beloved. When it comes to what we hear and say from the pulpit, we realize there need to be boundaries in between appropriate self-disclosure and inappropriate self-exposure. Still, the relationship between the joys of faithful sexuality and the joys of faithful devotion to God needs to be preached about. While there is silence on this subject from the pulpit, a cultural cacophony of voices offers a superficial, violent version of a sexual education. It's a topic everyone is interested in. We'd better talk about it.
Portions of this article appeared first in Quarterly Review, Summer 2000 under the title "The Appeal of Wisdom."
The Rev. Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. She is the author of several books on preaching the Bible's wisdom in today's churches, including Preaching Proverbs: Wisdom for the Pulpit, Preaching Biblical Wisdom in a Self Help Society, and Hear and Be Wise: Becoming a Teacher and Preacher of Wisdom. Her most recent book, Novel Preaching: Tips from Today's Top Writers for Crafting Creative Sermons, was published by Westminster John Knox in February 2010. She recently completed What Not To Say: Practical Advice for Provocative Preaching, co-authored with John C. Holbert, to be published in 2011 by Westminster John Knox Press.