Your Love Is Better Than Wine

January 29, 2023 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: The Thrill of Love from the Song of Songs

Scripture: Song of Solomon 1:1–4

1 The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s. 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine; 3 your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love you. 4 Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you.

We are fifteen sermons into our study of Ezekiel, taking us through the first 32 chapters of that book. But before we finish out that study, we’re going to spend the next two months, the next 7 or 8 weeks, studying the Song of Songs. There are at least two reasons why we are sandwiching The Song in between our study of Ezekiel. I propose the sermon plan to the elders in later July after I’ve spent some time praying about the next year of sermons, and drawing out our study of Ezekiel worked well with some of the themes of the latter chapters and the celebration of Easter. That’s one reason.

But the second reason has to do with why we are choosing to study The Song, along with Ezekiel, in the first place. What do these two biblical books have in common? What are they about? And to answer that question, well, I need to preach this sermon.

This morning my goal is to present an introduction to the Song of Songs and then give us all a sense of why this book is important for the Christian faith. I’m guessing most of you already have some idea about what the Song of Songs is all about. A few of you, in some friendly banter with me, have expressed your hesitancies about the Song. You know that what we find in this book is language about a very sensitive subject. I feel you. While I’m excited about trying to better understand any part of Scripture, I’m well aware that this is going to be a bit more challenging, and that we will need to choose our words wisely both to clearly communicate what the Song says and also to not speak in an insensitive or inappropriate way. Let me assure you, that is my intention, and I want you to be here with me as we go through this text. Some of you have no problem with that. But some of you will. Bringing up this subject is sure to stir the emotions in all sorts of ways, and I know it can be dangerous for all kinds of reasons. At least there are only 8 chapters!

As we get started, let’s get a hand on the title, subject, and message of The Song.

The Title of The Song

Verse one is something of a title page for The Song that follows. It says, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” Just four words in the Hebrew Bible which tell us the name of the book.

Solomon’s Song

The first two words are the title: The Song of Songs. From now on, let’s refer to the book by that name or by the abbreviated name, The Song. The name, The Song of Songs, suggests to us that what follows is supposed to be the best song there is.

The last two Hebrew words in verse 1, translated “which is Solomon’s,” might suggest to us that this is the best of Solomon’s songs that he wrote. According to 1 Kings 4:32, Solomon composed 1,005 songs. So perhaps verse one is telling us that this is the best one he wrote.

The problem is that the wording here does not necessarily mean that Solomon is the author of The Song. It could be a song written by him or to him or about him. We should rule out the last option. Solomon is only mentioned a few times in The Song and is not The Song’s central character.[1] That leaves us with the option that The Song was either written by him or to him. We simply cannot know, but its attachment to Solomon in verse one probably means at least that The Song was written during his time and from within his administration.[2] It’s association with him is why the book is often called The Song of Solomon.

The Best Song

What is it about The Song that can substantiate its claim to be The Song of Songs, the best song of all? Well, that’s a good question. The answer might be found in its composition. Many scholars say that The Song is actually a compilation of a number of independent songs. Just how many is a matter of debate. For sure the chapter divisions we have now are not helpful. Commentators have their opinions. Some say there are 9 independent poems. Others have suggested 14, 19, 23, or 42.[3] Some attempt to divide up The Song is necessary just to try to make some comment about the text in some organized way. But clearly the various poems within The Song are knit together into a cohesive unity. It is “a song of many songs,” explains one commentator, that “work together as a unified opus that is the finest of songs.”[4]

Whether we agree with that claim or not is as much a matter of personal taste as anything else—how does one prove that this song or that one is “the best” song of all? But for us Christians, there is the simple fact that this particular song called “The Song of Songs” is right here in our Bibles, taking its place in our canon of Holy Scripture.

And though for all kinds of reasons The Song doesn’t get much attention, the words of a first-century Rabbi about The Song might make us look a little closer.

For the entire age is not so worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is holiest of all.[5]

Well, then, let’s see if we can see what this Jewish rabbi saw when he read The Song of Songs. Let’s start to walk toward the “Holy of Holies” and see what we can see.

The Subject of The Song

And, honestly, it’s not that hard to see, in general terms, what the subject or theme of The Song is. The first verse of the first song in The Song will make it fairly obvious, I think.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine (Song 1:2).

Love, Romance, and the Erotic

Yes, The Song is about love. Specifically, it is about romantic love. It is a collection of romantic love poems.

But, as we quickly discover, The Song is even more specific. It is about love. It is about romantic love. And, it is about the intimacy that is the physical expression of that romantic love. Verse 2 has already told us this. Glance down to verses 12-13 and it becomes even more explicit. Well, hang on to your seatbelts, because it will get even more explicit in the ensuing chapters. In the words of one commentator, the Song of Songs “is something like an erotic psalter.”[6]

What in the world is it doing in our Bibles? That’s a question that has been asked for a very long time. If this is a subject that makes you nervous, you’re not alone.

Interpreting The Song

In fact, from the earliest existing evidence we have, The Song was understood to be an allegory. It’s primary meaning was not taken to be what it appeared to be in plain language. Early Jewish interpretation took The Song to be about God and his love for Israel.[7] Later Jewish interpretation of The Song shifted a bit, taking The Song’s meaning more individually and describing the love of God for each individual person within Israel.[8]

The early Christians largely followed Jewish allegorical approaches but found new meanings in light of historical developments. The first Christian interpreter of The Song that we know of suggested that the breasts of the woman in Song 4:5 referred to the Old and New Testaments.[9] Of course, it was easy enough to now say that The Song was about Jesus and the church rather than God and Israel. Plenty of other allegorical interpretations were suggested. And that is the biggest problem for this allegorical approach to The Song. As one commentator has put it, if you happen to find agreement between two different allegorical interpretations of The Song, it can only be because one of the interpreters has simply copied the other.[10]

The main problem with reading The Song as an allegory is that there simply is no indication that it is meant to be read that way, and there is nothing but creative imagination to help us know what The Song is really all about.

Holy Imagination

But one thing the allegorical approach to The Song does commend to us is the need for a healthy imagination. The Song of Songs is, of course, a song. It is poetry. It speaks with all sorts of figurative language. It invites us into imagination. It is art. It is creative. It is not so much a theological treatise on the subject of love and romance and sex. Some of us are more into this kind of communication than others, but all of us live in a world that is far richer and more beautiful because of it.

I remember the most challenging class I took in college, English Literature. I had a hard time in that class because I’m not so good with poetic language. I don’t understand the music, I guess you might say. I remember on the final exam almost laughing out loud when I read the question, “What is the meaning of the rose” in some Shakespearean sonnet? How was I to know? How could anyone other than Shakespeare know? And this is the point we have to grasp when we begin to read The Song of Songs. It is just the reality that the more poetic the language, the more a piece of art makes use of imagery, the more difficult it is to say succinctly what it all means. But that’s not a failure on the part of the poetry. That’s, in fact, its intent. By the use of metaphor and other artistic devices, The Song, like all good poetry, invites us to explore various levels of meaning in a way that can deeply affect us, in different ways, and all at the same time. It’s like those lovers of art who can sit in front of some masterpiece for hours. That is what is required to really “get it.” Perhaps we all need to work on our artistic side a bit more. Maybe an afternoon or evening or a whole day at the art museum is called for as we work through The Song of Songs.

Reading The Song Together

Of course, this does not mean we each get to decide for ourselves what this biblical text, or any other for that matter, really means. It does mean that we’ve got to leave some room for one another to meditate on and explore the main themes that The Song is addressing. We will attempt to identify the meaning of many of the metaphors that are being employed—my English Literature professor would be proud—but then invite you and your spouse, if you are married, and certainly you and your community to explore the various levels of meaning that the imagery invites us to consider. We will probably make a lot of mistakes. We might wonder at times if we’ve gone too far. Or perhaps we’ll sense we aren’t going far enough. In either case, we need to ask ourselves “why?” What’s driving us to see double entendre and sexual imagery everywhere, if it’s not really there? More likely, what’s holding us back form letting ourselves go into the erotic picture that seems to be painted for us—in the Holy Bible of all places?

This can be really uncomfortable. Tense. Awkward. Embarrassing. I get it. Perhaps this is just a subject that is too risky (or too risqué) for you. Join the club. You are not alone. This is true of every single one of us, though in different ways, to be sure. I’m already impressed at the breadth of the material that is related to our sexuality that the Song explores. Issues of beauty and passion , intimacy and abuse, ecstasy and disappointment—its’ all here in these eight chapters. It is very much written for married couples. But it has not at all neglected the non-married among us either. This is very much a community project. As uncomfortable as that may be, it is just not something we can neglect if we are indeed Christians who take the Bible—the whole Bible—seriously.

The Message of The Song

So, as we begin our study of The Song of Songs together, let’s consider together the message of The Song in light of the larger context of the whole Bible. What does The Song with its subject matter contribute to the entire gospel story?

The One Flesh Love

Just looking at verses 2-4, we can draw some initial observations. The Song begins, here in verse 2, with a celebration of the romantic kiss between lovers. The kiss is all the more wonderful as an expression of a love that “is better than wine.” The comparison of this love to wine invites the use of the imagination. And it might help you, as you ponder the comparison, to know that the word love here in verse 2, and in verse 4 where it is also compared to wine, is different than the usual Hebrew word for love found in verse 3 and at the end of verse 4. This word for love does not refer to the more abstract concept of love but to the more concrete act of love, lovemaking we might say.[11]

Yes, that is what The Song is talking about right off the bat. And while we’ve argued against an allegorical approach to The Song, a theological reading of The Song will take us down a similar path. Recall that the New Testament tells us that the “one flesh” relationship between a husband and wife is a profound mystery that “refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32).

So, if we want to understand the gospel, then we are invited to consider the love—yes, even the lovemaking—between a husband and wife. There’s something about it that is meant to tell us about the relationship that Jesus has with his people.

Naked and Unashamed

What is the nature of this loving relationship between Jesus and his church? The point being made there in Ephesians is drawn, not directly from The Song of Songs, but from a different Old Testament text. Ephesians 5:31 cites from Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The next verse, Genesis 2:25, says, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” The Song of Songs, we might say, is a commentary on that verse.

You see, the Bible, from the very beginning, speaks of the goodness of the body and all material things. God made a world, a physical, fleshly world, and called it all very good. We were meant to be in our bodies, our physical, sexual bodies, not relegated to them until we finally, through death, can escape them once and for all. Right after Genesis 2:25 comes Genesis 3 and the story of sin and the covering up of the body out of shame (Gen 3:7, 10). Ever since then, the Bible insists, human beings have struggled to find a way to enjoy the sensuous nature of our bodies without the associated shame. Some try it by pushing the boundaries toward a shameless, pornographic nudity, others by an ascetic spirituality that tries hard to keep the attention off our bodies at all costs. The Christian faith, the Christian gospel, and certainly The Song of Songs challenges both as being deadly and off course.

What is the solution, if there is one at all? Is there hope for our bodies? Now that is right at the heart of the Christian faith, and we need to get it right. Our belief in resurrection is not a belief in a bodiless life after death. That’s just not what resurrection means. It means a fully embodied “life after life after death,”[12] a return from death to life in the body in the material world God made and is committed to redeeming.

The Song of Songs is part of that Old Testament longing and expectation, some kind of return to the Garden of Eden, were we can be, once more, fully exposed but unashamed. It may be hard to imagine that, but The Song invites us to imagine it. And it offers us a way to even begin to experience it, a foretaste of what is yet to come in all its glorious, consummated fullness. I use that word on purpose.

Life-Giving Love of God

So, the reason why we are studying The Song of Songs now is because it is part of our overall theme for this sermon year that we’ve entitled “The Life-Giving Love of God.” The Bible wants us to begin to know something of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:19). In other words, the love of God for you in Christ is not something you can comprehend only with your mind. We are meant, in some way, to feel it in our bodies. Like the kisses of the mouth in verse 2 or the smell of fragrant oil in verse 3.

Or like the taste of wine in verses 2 and 4. The love of God in Christ for you is kind of like wine, but better yet. Kind of like lovemaking, or, you know, that dessert that you tasted one time and enthusiastically said, “Wow! This is amazing. What do you call this stuff?

The answer? “Better than…”

Yep, that’s what we’re going to be talking about as we study together The Song of Songs, because there is a love that is better than wine, more pleasing than scented oils, more ecstatic than the intimate love between a husband and his wife.


[1] Duane Garrett, “Song of Songs,” in Song of Songs, Lamentations, Word Biblical Commentary 23B, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 124.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] See, ibid., 25-26.

[4] Ibid., 26.

[5] Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 1127.

[6] Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 2.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] Ibid., 28.

[10] Othmar Keel, The Song of Songs: A Continental Commentary, trans. Frederick J. Gaiser (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 8.

[11] Garret, “Song of Songs,” 128.

[12] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 31.

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