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. 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. - Song of Solomon 8:6–7 (ESV)

If there were a prize for the most surprising book to be included in the Bible, Song of Solomon would be a strong contender. The reason is apparent upon even a cursory reading: it is overtly sensual. Although I do not believe that Song of Solomon should be read allegorically (as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church), I sympathize with the discomfort that God's people might feel at reading such explicit descriptions of marital love. I also understand that, given what Paul says about marriage being a picture of Christ and the church in Ephesians 5:31-32, it is tempting to read Christ and the church into the book. While parallels and analogies may be drawn, reading Christ and the church into the original intention of the book seems like a stretch.

Therefore, I believe that Song of Solomon, like the rest of the Bible, should be read straightforwardly in a way that comports with the literary conventions of the genre of the text. There is no apparent or compelling reason to read Song of Solomon in any other manner than what the text claims to be, as a song about marital love.

The Big Idea of Song of Solomon

I have taught that the big idea of Song of Solomon is the following: respect and enjoy the power of marital love. I mean by this that the overarching message of the book may be read as an example of passionate desire, including sexual desire, between a husband and his wife. As the reader comes to the end of Song of Solomon, he encounters the rather stunning set of lines by the wife about love, which are quoted above. In some ways, the whole book drives toward this climactic declaration about love being as strong as death and unquenchable.

The passage above is a fitting key text for Song of Solomon. The wife expresses her love but also demands it. She describes love in terms of strength, heat, and value. The love she describes is strong, fiery, and priceless. It is even equated with "the very flame of the LORD," which, although not easily understood, is nevertheless a startlingly profound thing to say.

An Outline of Song of Solomon

Chapters 1-3: Pursuit

Song of Solomon opens with what appears to be a young husband and wife delighting in each other. Each extols the other's appearance and virtue. The woman figures prominently as she describes her lover. However, a theme that sticks out is pursuit. There is a lot of moving, running, and leaping as they discuss desiring one another and wanting to be together. "Frolicking" is an apt word to describe the overall sense of this book section.

Chapters 4-5: Desire

Song of Solomon continues with the man's provocative description of the woman as he expresses his desire for her. She responds with a narrative of when he came to her at night, and she did not open the door before he left. She continues in chapter 5 to describe him in a manner that corresponds to his description of her.

Chapters 6-8: Union

Song of Solomon drives toward a conclusion in chapter 6 with a description of the two lovers together and admiring each other. They appear to have found each other. Their expressions of love continue through chapter 7. As chapter 8 draws the book to a close, there is a series of exchanges that are difficult to interpret. However, there is also the expression about love featured at the head of this article, which I like to think of as the 1 Corinthians 13 of the Old Testament.

Some Benefits of Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon is likely to make many readers uncomfortable. As we read it today, a few particular points of benefit seem worth mentioning concerning living for God through Christ.

Song of Solomon teaches us the big idea: to respect and enjoy the power of marital love. Although Song of Solomon does not say it, Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. So even though Song of Solomon does not need to be read as an allegory for Christ and the church, the lessons Song of Solomon teaches us about marriage and marital love may greatly benefit our understanding of marriage and Christ and the church.

Song of Solomon shows the reader that passionate sexual desire is natural and ought not to be ignored. The sheer volume and purity of passion are remarkable in this book. As we come to the end of the book and read the woman's warning to the husband regarding his love for her, that he set her as a seal upon his heart and arm, we find in this a broader declaration about love that applies to all of us. How many of us today have our understanding of love shaped by this book? I would wager not many.

And yet, by all accounts that I can think of, this one declaration on love in chapter 8 is one of the most profound statements I have encountered. We would do well to consider more deeply the connections between the ups and downs of the rest of the book and this statement in Song of Solomon 8:6-7.

Suffice it to say that Song of Solomon gives us an inside look at marital love that ought to put to rest any fears that marriage douses and dampens love rather than building it and structuring it to grow. Sexual expression without covenant commitment is nothing more than animal lust. We were made for more than that, and we want more than that. We do best in love and desire to corral our passions so that they are submitted to and on track toward God so that our understanding of marital love and our pursuit of a spouse is guided and bordered by what God's word has to say. And as it turns out, at least in Song of Solomon, God has plenty to teach us.

On Song of Solomon and Living for God Through Christ