Written by Max Harwood
What is the ultimate goal of being a Christian? In the end, what does it all add up to? The Song of Songs offers us an expression of it: union with God. The Song of Songs is a poem about the goodness of sexual love between a man and a woman, but on a higher level it is an allegory of the union between Christ and the Church. I want to show first how this idea of marriage to God is central to the Bible and then explore how using marriage as a metaphor for Christianity illumines both marriage and Christianity.
- Biblical Survey
What makes me say that union with God might be the theme of the Bible, and, more generally, the Christian life? In Genesis God creates Adam, but he is lonely, so Eve is created to be his partner. In marriage they are united as one, and Adam’s loneliness is healed. That image of marriage, of two becoming one, is then used in the Bible to speak about the relationship between God and his people. The clearest Old Testament example of this comes from Ezekiel, this is God speaking to Israel:
“You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine.”
Other prophets speak the same way. Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah all use the metaphor of marriage. It should be noted, unlike Adam, God does not enter into a relationship because he is lonely. Because God exists as a Trinity He has always been in community, and therefore never lonely, but I digress.
The theme of marriage continues in the New Testament. Jesus is frequently compared to a bridegroom. When others asked why Jesus’ disciples did not fast he said, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?” When John the baptist saw Jesus he said “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.” The apostle Paul, when speaking to the Corinthian church, said “ I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” And to the Ephesian church he said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” Revelation, the very last book of the Bible, concludes with the wedding supper of the Christ, and the church is presented to him as a bride, “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
From Genesis to Revelation, the relationship between Christ and the Church is compared to a marriage.
But to stop there would be incomplete. We should also notice the passages that speak about union. As a husband and wife are one, physically and spiritually speaking, so too the Church—or the individual soul—and Christ are meant to be one. Paul makes this link in his letter to the Ephesians that we just read, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church”, but it happens in other places too. In John’s Gospel Jesus prayed that the church would be united with Christ “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”. And earlier in the same gospel Jesus says, speaking of communion, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” In communion we are united with Christ in a profound way, I’ll speak more about that later, the point now is to notice the language of union—as we eat food and in a sense are “united” with it, so too we must be united with Christ. And then there is the example of the incarnation, Jesus Christ became a human, was united with us, so that we might be united with him. St. Athanasius, that famous church father, summed up the incarnation in this way: God became human so humans could become god. That does not mean we become the same as God, as if we would no longer need God; instead it is a very concise way to speak of union with God—we are filled with the Holy Spirit, who is God, and the image of God is brought to completion in us. It is in that sense that we “become god”. This language of union reinforces the metaphor of marriage.
It’s at this point that we come to the Song of Songs. On one level it is a song about the goodness of human sexual love. Sex is a good thing, when used properly. After all, God invented and blessed it when he said, “be fruitful and multiply”. So the Song of Songs praises God for his good creation of sexual love. But on a more profound level, the Song of Songs is about the King of Kings. Solomon represents Christ. As Solomon’s name is related to the Hebrew “shalom” which means peace, so Jesus is the prince of peace; as Solomon received the queen of Sheba, so Jesus received the gentiles; as Solomon is the son of David so too Jesus. Verse 2 says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”. This is a way to speak about the desire of our soul to be united with God because “his love is better than wine”. Verse 3, “[His] name is perfume poured out”; this makes us think of the woman who anointed Jesus with perfume before his crucifixion—to those who love Christ, his name is beautiful. And then the king is said to bring the maiden into his chambers, which simply means the kings bedroom. Some ancient authors said that the cross is the bed on which Christ consummates his marriage to the Church. They say that, at least in part, because it is on the cross that Christ fully enters into humanity, suffering and dying the death of us all. And in that union, new life is born! He impregnates the world with life, rising from the dead and granting life to all those who are united to him.
So we see that language of marriage, or at times phrases that are reminiscent of sex—“the two shall become one”—is used throughout the Bible to explain God’s relation to us. This metaphor is extremely helpful because it at once helps us to understand our relationship to God—what might be called “divine-marriage”—and human-marriage. I want to give a number of examples of how this metaphor informs our relationship with God, and from time to time I will touch on marriage itself.
Later in The Song of Songs, we are repeatedly warned not to awaken love prematurely; this warning comes three times. On one level that is good advice, those thinking about marriage should work towards getting a stable job and becoming emotionally mature before awakening love. But on a deeper level, union with God should not be sought right away. Some ancient Christians said first we must repent, then we must do good works, then we may experience profound union with God. Others made a similar point by referring to the other books Solomon wrote. Song of Songs is attributed to Solomon, but so too Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. First, Proverbs teaches us to live correctly in basic things; next, Ecclesiastes tells us what we should set our heart on; finally, Song of Songs speaks of the ultimate union with God—there is a progression. All that shows us that while union with God is the goal, it does not come without effort, and it should not be sought or expected without first repenting and then doing good works. It also teaches us that “being a good person” is not the end goal of being a Christian—union is. And yet, it is not as if we can have union without good works. As married couples are called to bear fruit—children—so too our union with God is meant to bear fruit—good works.
As our relationship with God is like marriage, so our dis-relationship is like adultery. The Bible makes this link a lot in the Old Testament, here’s a stark example from Ezekiel, speaking of Israel, “Yet she increased her whorings, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions.” Israel’s sin is graphically compared to adultery, and so too ours. As we would grieve over adultery, so we should grieve over sin—that topic, I think, has been covered before. But I think we can run with this parallel and say that as there is adultery and spiritual adultery, so there is pornography and spiritual pornography. The problem with pornography is that it turns sex into an act of mere pleasure, thus denigrating the other person to an object—they become a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. The point is no longer union, but pleasure. The same kind of thing happens in Christianity. God becomes a means to an end, our focus is no longer on union with Him but on the pleasure he might give us—this is the pornography of religion. So, an obvious example is the prosperity gospel, where we follow God because he will bless us. But often when we imagine heaven we just think it will be the increase of regular pleasure—we won’t have to work, and it will always be sunny, and we’ll have no sickness and be able to do whatever we want. But that is a bastardized vision—heaven is all about union with God, which, yes, will be pleasurable, but pleasure is certainly not the aim, it’s an added bonus. And this understanding helps us to gain a proper understanding of sex in a marriage between a man and a woman. The understanding of sex in our culture has often been pornified, teaching us that the point is pleasure—but the true aim is union. Pleasure is a bonus, it comes and goes. The real joy is being united.
If dis-union with God can be compared to adultery, then union with God can be compared to marital sex. Sex is the joining of two people, the literal joining of bodies but also the joining of everything else. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” If Paul was simply speaking about the union of bodies why would he say “don’t you know that you become one flesh”? If he was just speaking about physical union he is stating the obvious—sex cannot happen without physical oneness. But he is speaking about a deeper union than something merely physical. That’s at least one reason not to sleep with someone until you are one with them in all areas of life—financial, emotional, legal. Paul goes on to make the point that there is also a oneness that can be experienced with God. One place that oneness occurs in a very profound and significant way is in communion, which is why Jesus said “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” In communion we are united with Christ in a special and unique way, which is why the regular celebration of communion is important, just as regular sex within a marriage is important. Does that mean we are going to have sexual feelings towards God? This is a tricky and somewhat uncomfortable subject. First, do we think that sexual feelings—we could just use the greek word for sexual love, eros—are always bad? I don’t think we would say that within a marriage. Second, is it possible that something like eros, that is greater than it, is what Paul is trying to get at by comparing marriage, and the two becoming one, to being one spirit with God? Paul is speaking about sex, and then goes on to say there is a oneness that can be experienced with God. Maybe this is what Blaise Pascal experienced in what has been called “the night of fire”, an experience that radically changed his life. Or perhaps this is what St. Theresa of Avila experienced and is remembered for, in the sculpture “ecstasy of St. Theresa”. But perhaps as it would be unwise to speak openly of the union of a man and a woman, so too it would be unwise to speak openly of the saints’ deep union with Christ. We can at least say that our love and passion for God will be no less than that between a man and a woman, and that sex is an apt analogy.
It is because of the joy of union with Christ that many Christians throughout history have committed themselves to a celibate life. Their motivation was not primarily negative, it is not as if they did not want to get married, or necessarily saw sex as disgusting. Instead, their main motivation was positive, a desire to commit themselves totally and completely to God alone. Paul makes this very point in 1 Corinthians, “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband.” Thus, if you are single—for any reason, a virgin, widow, or divorcee—you have a greater opportunity to experience union with God, because your interests are not divided. You have an advantage over those who are married. Too often in protestant churches we put pressure on people to be married and start families, but the single life is a high calling and should be respected.
If the Church is Christ’s bride that means she is beautiful. The Song of Songs records many words from the bridegroom that praise the bride. So too in Revelation, the bride is described as the heavenly city of Jerusalem, built with fine jewels. God values the Church, and each individual member therein. He gave his son for them. It is too easy to complain about the Church. May Christ heal our eyes, that we may see her beauty.
And if our eyes our healed, if we are given the eyes of faith, then the couples we see on television or read about in stories will become a symbol for us of Christ and the Church. There is a way to live in which the “ordinary” events of life become profound, they become signs and symbols of a higher reality, a living picture of Christ. There are several examples of this in the Bible, and right now I am stepping somewhat out of the theme I have been running with, of the relation between Christ and the Church into the general idea that the ordinary world can become a living representation of Christ, which may at times include a representation of the Church; but let me begin by stating the principle generally and then coming back to our theme. The Psalms speak of the heavens declaring the glory of God. The Gospel of Matthew says that in the poor we find Christ. In the Gospel of John Jesus uses ordinary things to explain the divine—things like wind and wheat: the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways, like the wind; a kernel of wheat must fall to the ground and die to produce new life, just as Jesus had to descend from heaven and be nailed to a cross so we might live. Anything living is able to become a sign of God for us, since it is only through God that things exist, as it says in Acts, “in Him we live, and move, and have our being”. Even the most evil person praises God in the fact that they exist. Existence or Being is a testament to God. And so we can experience God in the everyday, there is nothing that cannot act as a signpost for him. This same thing applies when we read the Old Testament—the Rock in the wilderness that provided water for the Israelites is Christ, the cloud that lead them is the Holy Spirit, the manna in the desert is the Word of God who descended from heaven and gave his life for the life of the world, the paschal lamb is our Saviour, the blood of the lamb is the passion of Christ. This kind of vision, where we are able to perceive Christ—in life, scripture, whatever—will cause our hearts to burn within us as the disciples’ hearts burned within them when Jesus explained the scriptures to them—how they are all about him. We, like Paul, need the scales to fall from our eyes so we can see the truth about Christ, that he is present everywhere. Without this sight life can be very harsh, but with it we are enlivened. This is why Paul said “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The Spirit shows us the truth about Christ. It is in this way of living, in this kind of seeing and smelling and feeling, that we are able to have communion with Christ in the seemingly mundane, this is yet another way, and perhaps one of the most important, that we may be united with Christ. We fall so deeply in love with him that we begin to see signs of him everywhere.
What is the main aim of Christianity? Union with God. How can we understand this? The metaphor of marriage. When we use this metaphor it at once teaches us about “divine-marriage” and human-marriage. Concerning human marriage: We should not awaken love prematurely; marriage is the union of everything; and, the main goal of sex is union, pleasure is a bonus. Concerning divine-marriage: Union with God can be related to sex, as dis-union is related to adultery; those who are single have the opportunity to unite with God in a profound and perhaps superior way than those who aren’t; the Bride of Christ, the Church, is beautiful, and we should treat her as such; and, there is a way to live life in which every moment may become an opportunity for union with God, but we must have the eyes and ears for it. May we take another step, or perhaps the very first, towards union with Christ today.
Lord Jesus Christ, may we be united with you. You have joined us to yourself through the incarnation, and what God has joined may no human separate. We thank you for descending that we might ascend, for dying that we might live. You are the true spouse for whom we long. Heal our blind eyes and deaf ears, that we might be able to see you and hear you in the everyday. For you are with us always, even to the end of the age; and since you have given us new life, death will never do us part. Amen.