Uncomfortably Affectionate

Toward a Theology of the Kiss

Among New Testament commands we’re quick to qualify today (or just ignore altogether), Romans 16:16 may stand out:

Greet one another with a holy kiss.

Really? We might chuckle at the thought of everyone kissing each other before the Sunday service. At least not in our time and place, we think. Maybe other cultures; not ours. And we might be reasonable to respond that way.

Then we find the apostle repeating the charge again at the end of three more letters (1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26), and Peter too (1 Peter 5:14). Even if Jesus might approve of our not doing exactly what his apostles said, but finding appropriate expressions for today, do we have a “theology of the kiss” to guide us?

Look across the breadth of Scripture, and we discover a surprising (and perhaps uncomfortable) amount of kissing — almost fifty instances. And the nature and kinds of these kisses show that this isn’t simply an ancient-world custom. Rather, this kissing is distinctive to the people of the one true God, and a mark of his glory. Their lips bring him honor. A kissing kingdom says something about its sovereign. Its kisses reflect a king who captures human hearts, not just minds and duty.

“A kissing kingdom says something about its sovereign.”

Here, we’ll survey a theology of kissing in the Old Testament, and identify one key takeaway for the church age. Then, in a future article, we’ll draw attention to two special instances of kissing in the New Testament, and further fill out the rich background against which the apostles enjoin the holy kiss.

What’s in a Biblical Kiss?

Before looking at several kinds of kissing in Scripture, let’s first ask about the nature of the act itself and its meaning. What makes a kiss significant?

First, to state the obvious, but necessarily so in increasingly digital and remote times, kissing requires bodily, physical proximity. It assumes nearness, even intimacy. No one blows kisses in the Bible. When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim, he said to Jacob (who he thought was Esau), “Come near and kiss me, my son” (Genesis 27:26). A filial kiss would bring him close enough to smell and touch, and confirm which son it was. So too, a generation later, when Jacob himself was old, eyes dim with age, he brought near Joseph’s sons that he might kiss and bless them (Genesis 48:10). Such nearness requires a willingness to touch and be touched, and that with a sensitive and sacred member: the lips.

Kissing, then, also requires trust — that is, neither party fears imminent physical harm from the other (which could be easily enacted at such close range). The notorious offender here is Joab who twice abuses such trust. In 2 Samuel 3, he drew near to Abner under the pretense of peace and stabbed him in the stomach to avenge a brother’s death in battle. In 2 Samuel 20, Joab drew near to Amasa and took him “by the beard with his right hand to kiss him.” Assuming friendship, Amasa did not anticipate a sword in Joab’s hand (2 Samuel 20:9). Kissing requires a level of trust, making it a mark of peculiar depravity to betray, and exploit, a seeming ally under the pretense of a kiss.

Given the requisite nearness and trust, the kiss, in its essence, shows affection. It is a “sign,” an outward expression of an inward posture of the heart. Early in the biblical story, the kiss is typically a demonstration of heartfelt affection at the reunion of long-estranged relatives, whether Jacob with Rachel (Genesis 29:11), or Laban with Jacob (Genesis 29:13), or Esau with Jacob (Genesis 33:4), Joseph with his brothers (Genesis 45:15), Jacob with his sons (Genesis 48:10), Moses with Aaron (Exodus 4:27), or Moses with his father-in-law (Exodus 18:7). These are family members reuniting, not enemies securing new peace. The kiss is an act of trust and love among those who already share in peace.

Kinds of Kissing

As we work through the many instances of kissing in Scripture, we find several distinct types. Far and away, the most common are the greeting kiss or farewell kiss. They demonstrate familial affection, expressing ongoing love within established relationships. Such kisses, as we might expect, often accompany an embrace (Genesis 29:13; 33:4; 48:10; also Luke 15:20). Biblical figures also kiss goodbye, often with tears: Laban kissing his grandchildren (Genesis 31:28, 55); Joseph, his dying father (Genesis 50:1); and Naomi, her daughters-in-law (Ruth 1:9, 14). David and Jonathan, in an unusual covenant of friendship, kiss each other and weep at their parting (1 Samuel 20:41).

A second type of kiss is the kind that we today (at least in the West) probably assume would be the majority, though it’s not: the marital kiss. We might think to flip first to the Song of Solomon, and there it is, at the very outset: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine” (Song of Solomon 1:2). While the couple is here not yet married, they are anticipating their covenant love. Their kisses, then, are no less familial, but now they are becoming familial in the most exclusive and intimate of senses. The foil to this kiss, of course, would be the adulterous kiss of Proverbs 7. The “forbidden woman . . . dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart” lies in wait for the fool. “She seizes him and kisses him” (Proverbs 7:5, 10, 13). This is an evil, unholy kiss, the literal prostituting of the lips.

If readers today are most familiar with romantic and marital kisses, we likely least expect the regal kisses wrapped up with ancient kingship. When the kiss comes from a subject to his king, we might call it a “kiss of homage.” More than just a bow, which can happen at a distance and accents submission, the kiss expresses a heart of devotion and love, even delight. The kiss of homage also presumes the trust of the king, who allows a subject into such proximity with the dignitary. When the prophet Samuel anointed David king, he “took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him” (1 Samuel 10:1). As he does, Samuel expresses his glad devotion to the newly anointed king.

“The kiss, sincerely expressed, communicates not only welcome but delight.”

But in a king’s presence, kisses can go both ways. When a kiss comes from the king to his subject, it serves as a great sign of blessing. In 2 Samuel 14:33, when Absalom has been estranged from his father for two years, he comes into the king’s presence for the first time and bows. David then welcomes his estranged son with a kiss that is not only a familial (and filial) greeting but a kingly kiss of blessing. The king communicates that he holds no grudge against his son (a father welcomes home his prodigal, Luke 15:20), and as king, his kiss expresses not only his own personal acceptance but the whole kingdom’s.

Kiss the Son

Among the many instances of kissing in the Old Testament, one regal kiss stands out above the rest — the one of Psalm 2:12:

Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Here “the Son” is God’s anointed king over his people (Psalm 2:2; Acts 4:25 attributes the psalm to David). Hostile nations rage and unbelieving kings take counsel against him, and in doing so they plot against the God who has installed him — that is, the God who laughs at such hubris, and speaks in holy wrath, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6). This turns the threat utterly on its head. It is not God’s appointed king, “the Son,” who’s actually in danger, but any and all who oppose him.

The king then issues his enemies a warning: “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). The next utterance declares what form such a dramatic change of heart should take:

Kiss the Son.

This is not just a bow of submission. Any defeated foe can cower, and fall to his knees, when overpowered. But Psalm 2 calls for a kiss of homage, and kissing expresses the movement, and transformation, of the heart. Former enemies not only become servants and kiss their new king; they become worshipers in their very soul.

Why So Many Kisses?

In the end, the nature of the kiss speaks volumes about the God who rules over all, the glory of his Anointed, and the faith of his people in him. A people who kiss — whether to greet each other or in the act of worship — testify to a dynamic life of the heart, much like a people who sing. The people of the one true God not only think; they feel. They not only confess; they kiss. They not only affirm, but they do so with affection. And the people of God, in ancient Israel and the early church, are singers and kissers.

The kiss, sincerely expressed, communicates not only welcome but delight. It is no mere exchange of niceties, but a communication of steadfast love. While, for many of us, the “holy kiss” may not, at present, fall in the acceptable (or comfortable) range of normal greetings, we will do well to expand our expressions of holy affection, and find meaningful ways to communicate not only acceptance to our fellows in Christ but affection for them.

And all the while, in expressing our affection for his people, we say something about our God and King as the one who not only moves the human heart, but himself is our final satisfaction. When we “kiss the Son,” we not only acknowledge him, in word and in worship, as Lord and Savior, but we express delight in him, in our hearts, as our supreme Treasure. And so we are, in Christ, a kissing people.