By Iain Duguid
One of the agonizing aspects of being in love but not yet married is the need to wait. You long for the day when your lives will be so intertwined that every aspect will be linked together, including sexually. This agony is not helped by the fact that we live in a sex-saturated culture where our eyes and minds are bombarded on all sides by the message that your sexuality is simply another appetite to be satisfied, like hunger and thirst. In such a context, it is easy to imagine that you are the only one waiting for sex until you are married.
Into this cauldron of unfulfilled desire the Song of Songs speaks with calm and reassuring wisdom when it says to the young women of Jerusalem, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” This caution is so important to the Song’s portrayal of the beauty and power of love that it is repeated three times (Song of Solomon 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). This repetition is not because the Song has reservations about the goodness of love and sex in its proper place, within marriage. On the contrary, it depicts and praises the breathtaking intensity of a unique, lifelong, committed relationship between one man and one woman — what we might call, “Friendship on fire.”
The way in which the Song persuades us to wait for marriage to have sex is striking, however. Often Christians focus on the various rules that the Bible gives us about our sexuality — the “Thou shalt not’s.” There is certainly biblical wisdom behind those rules. Yet what the Song adds to the rules are reasons. Rules are like walls and fences: They can mark out where proper boundaries exist. Yet walls and fences are of only limited help in keeping people in their proper place: They can easily be tunneled under, climbed over, or broken down. It is much more likely that we will stay on the proper side of the wall until marriage if we have a reason rather than simply a rule.
Intriguingly, the Song compares waiting for marriage to guarding a vineyard. In the springtime of the year, when flowers are in bloom and all nature is telling you to go forth, be fruitful and multiply, the woman warns us of the little foxes that can damage the fragile blossoms of the vineyard, with serious long-term consequences for its fruitfulness (2:15). She reminds us that the farmer who invests his energy in protecting the integrity of the vineyard will not regret it later, even though the benefits of this painful perseverance won’t be reaped until the time is fully ripe.
Vineyard tending is a long, patient process of waiting and watching in which one failure doesn’t bring the whole endeavor to nothing. The farmer who fails doesn’t have to give up the vineyard as damaged goods. He can repent and rebuild the broken wall and start again to watch and wait. Equally, while keeping the walls is important in vineyard tending, it is not the only thing. It’s about taking care of tender blossoms. Tending your sexual vineyard is therefore not simply about actual physical sexual intercourse; it is about protecting your mind from habitual lust, romantic fantasy, and pornography, all of which can have long-term damaging effects. You can have a vineyard whose walls are still intact but whose blossoms have been trampled into the muddy dirt in other ways.
Nor is watching over the vineyard an end in itself. Rather, its wonderful purpose is to be able at the end of the process to present your vineyard to your lover in full bloom, so that you can both enjoy its fruit without regret or remorse. The intensity of the waiting makes the final consummation all the more glorious. Failure should not lead us simply to guilt but to repentance, while God enabled purity should not result in pride but profound thankfulness to God for his grace that protected us against ourselves.
Yet not every good farmer who tends his vineyard carefully will enjoy the fruit of marriage. Some remain single for the long haul or struggle with same-sex attraction. Why continue to take good care of your vineyard when you don’t see any way in which those blossoming vines will ever bear fruit in a biblically approved sexual relationship? Under those circumstances, watching and faithfully waiting easily seem like wasted labor.
There are two reasons still to wait and watch. The first reason is that God can surprise us with an unexpected relationship. People who have been single for many years may finally meet a godly spouse. Men and women whose struggle is with same-sex attraction do in many cases get successfully married to a person of the opposite gender. Don’t discount God’s remarkable ability to confound your doom and gloom predictions for the future: He is the God who does far more than we can ask or imagine.
Don’t discount God’s remarkable ability to confound your doom and gloom predictions for the future.
The second and far more important reason is that, whether or not we ever get married and find a beautiful and legitimate outlet for those God-given sexual desires, there is a greater lover for whom we are waiting. There is a God who desires you so passionately that he has moved heaven and earth to have a relationship with you. The powerful sexual drives God gives us to cement us together in marriage are only a pale reflection of how passionately God desires and pursues us.
Isaiah sang about his Beloved, who took perfect care of his vineyard (Isaiah 5). He dug it, cleared it of stones, and fertilized it; he built a wall around it and a watchtower to keep guard against foxes and other intruders. Yet when harvest time came, he found only a few sour and bitter grapes on the vines. Isaiah was describing God’s love relationship with Israel, but he could just as easily have been describing the Lord’s relationship with you and me. The Lord has taken such good care of us and given us such abundant gifts — beauty, intellect, wealth, talent, opportunity, relationships, life itself — but the only fruit we have borne for him is wild and sour grapes. In our sexuality, he has given each of us a beautiful vineyard to watch over and we have razed down the wall, invited the foxes in for a party, planted thorns and thistles, and turned the whole thing into a muddy and sordid mess. Any normal landowner would call in the police to arrest such tenants.
But God is not any normal landowner. Instead, he sent his own Son to rescue and redeem his tenants from their own folly. Jesus came from the perfection of heaven and entered the muddy mess of this world in order to rebuild his vineyard. He came as a man with normal sexual appetites and desires that he knew he would not be able to fulfill. Yet he guarded his own vineyard perfectly, watching over it and waiting, not for the sake of a future earthly bride but for his heavenly bride, the church. The bride that he chose has no beauty of her own and has not kept her own vineyard. She is dressed in the filthy rags of her abused sexuality, yet he came to clothe her in the beautiful garments of his own faithful watching and waiting, so that on her wedding day, she could be presented to him pure and spotless, beautiful beyond description. Jesus is the true Beloved for whom we are watching, the one for whom we are called to maintain our vineyards as we wait.
So we are not just to guard our vineyards for the sake of an earthly harvest, a wonderful vintage marriage to a good Christian man or woman. There is an ultimate harvest, a tree of life whose fruit we will taste on the last day when our waiting finally comes to an end with the return of the bridegroom to claim his bride. On that day, our cold and wandering hearts will finally be transformed and made whole. We shall behold the loveliness of his form with our own eyes. On that day, our joy will be complete as our Beloved says to us,
Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, look, the winter rains are past; the spring rains have come and gone. The blossoms appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the sound of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom, emitting fragrance. Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come away. (Song of Solomon 2:10–13)
Iain Duguid is Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, and the author of several books, most recently The Song of Songs: An Introduction and Commentary (IVP). A native of Great Britain, Duguid served as a missionary in Liberia before completing a Ph.D. in Old Testament at Cambridge University. He and his wife Barbara have six grown children.
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