The Song of Songs for Singles
You may have heard how rates of depression (and even suicide) tend to rise during the Christmas season. What many consider the happiest time of the year is, for some, the hardest to get through. But Christmas is not the only time of year when this happens: Valentine’s Day can be excruciating for those without a valentine. The way the holiday is celebrated in America can make you feel like you’re at a party where everyone is having a good time except for you — and you just have to stand there and watch. Our culture’s tragic elevation of sexual fulfillment into an idol makes this even worse.
Strange as it might sound, however, you don’t have to avoid the Song of Songs if this time of year is hard for you. In fact, the Bible’s one book about marital love and romance can be a place of comfort and calm for singles in three ways.
Don’t Try to Fall in Love
Our society gives relentless attention and pressure to finding that one special someone who will completely fulfill your longings within. (Think how many movies portray a romantic connection in such unrealistic terms.) Your own family may make matters worse by constantly dropping hints about how long you’ve been single. These pressures can make it easy to start giving as much energy as possible to trying to fall in love — or settling for someone you’re not crazy about, just to get out of the “single” category (see Isaiah 4:1).
Strikingly, however, the Song tells us to do the opposite:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the does of the field,
that you not stir up or awaken love
until it pleases. (2:7; 3:5; 8:4)
This is the most frequently repeated verse in the book, its refrain, and the main lesson its readers are supposed to remember: let love awaken on its own or not at all. Being in love can look so wonderful from the outside, and the rapturous speeches of the Song’s young couple might lead readers of the book to try to taste this experience for themselves as soon as possible. But the Song goes out of its way to tell us this is unwise.
“If love and romance never awaken for you, you can still be vibrantly alive in God’s world.”
For those unmarried, this verse is your Creator giving you permission to excuse yourself from the romantic rat race. If love and romance never awaken for you, you can still be vibrantly alive in God’s world. Our culture makes sexual fulfillment central to human fulfillment; I get the sense a lot of people think you’re not fully alive (and maybe not even fully human) unless you’re dating or married. God’s word is far kinder. If you fall in love, that’s wonderful. If you don’t, there is no need to worry about it — get on with the business of enjoying life and imaging God in the world, waiting patiently on his timing.
No ‘Happily Ever After’
The Song, along with the rest of the Bible, portrays marriage as a deeply good gift, and falling in love as something so beautiful it almost will not go into words. But the same book that poetically adorns romance also makes it clear that love will not always be easy or pain-free. We see this mostly clearly in 5:2–6:3, which describes, in dream-like fashion, a break in the couple’s relationship that is eventually healed.
That’s what seems to happen, anyway; the shifting, prismatic poetry makes it difficult to be sure. The passage begins with the woman refusing to open a locked door to her husband, either teasing him or making excuses (5:2–3); but even the sound of him at the door awakens her desire, and she throws the door open (verses 4–5). As sometimes happens in dreams, however, he simply vanishes. The woman searches everywhere, calling without answer (verse 6); things become nightmarish when she gets beaten up (verse 7; apparently the city guards think she’s an intruder or prostitute).
Thankfully, the woman is not abandoned. After describing her husband to the “daughters of Jerusalem” (verses 10–16), her friends are convinced to help her look for him (6:1) — but there is no need. She has found him already, in the garden they both share (6:2). Apparently, the sexual bond between wife and husband means that breakdowns in the relationship will be temporary.
A married couple I know extended hospitality to a single woman in their church by giving her a key to their house: she was welcome to invite herself over any time. The couple said that one of the benefits of their generosity was that their single friend got to see a marriage from the inside, and that marriage is not always great. This passage is doing the same. Just because the bond is so profound, married couples will at times suffer excruciating pain, for reasons they won’t always understand. The grass is definitely not always greener.
You can see this aspect of the Song in another way. The book begins and ends on the same note of unfulfilled desire, as the couple expresses their desire to get away together (1:2–4; 8:14). As beautiful as the book (and love itself) is, there isn’t much forward progress. The emotional and sexual fulfilment of marriage is temporary and sporadic; a sense of longing and unfulfillment is as much a part of marriage as anything else. This reality guards us against any unwise romanticization of romance.
Single Sexuality Still Achieves God’s Purpose
For most people, the desire to fall in love and get married can be overwhelming, especially when you are young. This can make it unfortunately easy to feel resentment toward God if he does not send anyone to you. Why would he give us overpowering desires and then not give (to some, anyway) any way of fulfilling them without disobeying him?
“The Bible’s one book about marital love and romance can be a place of comfort and calm for singles.”
The Song’s most famous passage answers this when it describes romantic love as “the very flame of the Lord” (8:6). Romantic love is ultimately a reflection of God’s character. The ultimate reason God made you sexual was not so you could fulfill that desire in marriage (good as that is). Your sexuality is meant to give you the vocabulary and imagination to appreciate how your divine Husband feels about his bride — the only Lover whose love is stronger than death, jealous beyond the grave, fierce, not to be denied. The next time you are driven to distraction by your own desires, think, “My feelings right now are the merest echo of the desire of our divine husband” (see Isaiah 62:5).
Think of it this way: if you had to describe the human experience of falling in love to an alien whose species reproduced asexually, what would you say? You’d be reduced to metaphor. God created human sexuality because without it, we would be blind and deaf toward one dimension of his love for us.
Even if you aren’t married, your sexuality is still achieving God’s ultimate purpose for which it is designed. If you long for a wedding day and honeymoon, your divine Husband longs for his eschatological wedding day and eternal honeymoon even more. Without the sexual dimension of the human person, you would not be able to understand this aspect of God’s character. Your longing for love and romance is a subset of a much deeper longing that, fortunately, has no doubt about its fulfillment. The ardour of your divine husband will not allow it.