Passion, Family and Work (Song of Songs 3:1-8:5)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

In a series of songs, the text describes the marriage of the man and woman and their coming together. The woman yearns for the man (Song 3:1–5) and then she comes to him on a lovely palanquin (Song 3:6-11).[1] The man, wearing a crown, receives her (Song 3:11). In an Israelite wedding, a bride arrived in a sedan surrounded by attendants (Song 3:7) and she was received by her groom, who wore a crown. Song 3:11 confirms that this text celebrates “the day of his wedding.”[2]

The man then sings of his love for his bride (Song 4:1–15) and their wedding night is described in vivid images and metaphors (Song 4:16–5:8). The woman then sings of her love for her beloved (Song 5:9–6:3) and another song on the woman’s beauty follows (Song 6:4–9). The couple then sings of their love for each other (Song 6:10–8:4). The text is frankly sexual, and Christian preachers and writers have tended to avoid the Song or to allegorize it out of concern that it is too racy for polite religious society.

But the sex in the text is intentional. A song about the passion between two lovers on their wedding day would be missing something if it failed to mention sex! And the sex is intimately connected to both the household and the work in the Song. Upon their marriage, the lovers create a household, the primary unit of economic activity in the ancient world. Without sex, it could not be populated with workers (i.e. children). Moreover, passion (including sex) between spouses is a glue holding the household together through the prosperity, adversity, joy and stress that characterize a family’s life and work. Today, many couples report dissatisfaction with the amount of time they have for sex and lovemaking. A major culprit is that one or both partners are too busy working.[3] The Song makes it clear that you should not let work push aside time for intimacy and sex with your spouse.

Throughout these verses, we see imagery drawn from landscape of Israel and its agriculture and shepherding. The woman’s body is a “garden” (Song 5:1). The man’s “cheeks are like beds of spices” (Song 5:13). Enjoying his bride, he is like a man gathering lilies in a garden (Song 6:2). She is awesome like Jerusalem (Song 6:4). Her “hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Gilead” (Song 6:5). Her teeth are like a flock of ewes (Song 6:6). Her stature is like that of a palm tree (Song 7:7). They desire to go to the “vineyards” (Song 7:12). She rouses her beloved “under the apple tree” (Song 8:5). The joy of their love is intimately connected to the world of their work. They express their happiness with images drawn from what they see in their gardens and flocks.

New Year, New Brew

Ryan Dixon, Dan Griffith and Stephen Lee started True Vine, a micro brewery in Tyler, Texas. "'We're very tied with our family; so we didn't want something that was going to take us away from that,' Ryan said. Instead, the trio decided to open as a production brewery, selling their beer to local establishments. Read more about how they seek to live out their faith in their family and work lives here.

This suggests that family and work belong together. In the Song, the whole of life is integrated. Before the industrial revolution, most people worked with family members in the households where they lived. This is still true in much of the world. The Song paints an idyllic view of this arrangement. The reality of household-based labor has been marred by poverty, grinding toil, humiliation, bonded service and slavery, and abusive relationships. Yet the Song expresses our desire — and God’s design — that our work be woven into the tapestry of our relationships, beginning with family. 

In developed economies, most paid work occurs outside the household. The Song of Songs does not offer specific means for integrating work with family and other relationships in today’s societies. It should not be taken as a call for us all to move to farms and chase away the little foxes! But it does suggest that modern workplaces should not ignore their workers’ family lives and needs. Many workplaces provide day care for workers’ children, career development that respects parenting needs, time away for family care needs, and — in countries with private health care — medical insurance for workers’ families. Yet these considerations are not available in all workplaces, and some have been cut by employers. Most modern workplaces fall far short of the model of family care we see in the Song. The recent trend towards shifting work from offices to homes may or may not improve matters, depending on how costs, revenues, support services and risks are distributed.

The Song could be an invitation to creativity as the 21st century workplace takes shape. Families might start businesses in which family members can work together. Companies might employ spouses together or help one spouse to find work when relocating the other. Recent decades have seen much innovation and research in this area, both in secular and Christian — especially Catholic — circles.[4]

What is the difference between work and a job? (Click to listen)

The Song should also increase our appreciation of unpaid work. In pre-industrial households, there is little distinction between paid and unpaid work, since work occurs in an integrated unit. In industrial and post-industrial societies, much — but by no means all — of the work occurs outside the household, earning wages to support the household. The unpaid work that remains to be done within the household often gets less respect than the paid work done outside. Money, rather than overall contribution to the household, becomes the measure of work’s worth, and sometimes even of individuals’ worth. Yet households could not function without the often unpaid work of maintaining the household, raising children, caring for aged and incapacitated family members, and sustaining social and community relationships. The Song depicts the value of work in terms of its overall benefit to the household, not its monetary contribution.

The Song may pose a challenge to many churches and those who guide Christians, for it is uncommon for Christians to receive much help in arranging their work lives. Not enough churches are able to equip their members for making godly, wise, realistic choices about work in relationship to family and community. Undoubtedly, church leaders will rarely have the on-the-ground knowledge needed to help members land jobs or create workplaces that move towards the ideal depicted in the Song. If I want to know how to better integrate my work as a nurse, for example, with my family relationships, I probably need to talk more with other nurses than with my pastor. But perhaps churches could do more to help their members recognize God’s design for work and relationships, express their hopes and struggles, and join with similar workers to develop viable options.

“Who is this?” (3:6) — translated misleadingly as “What is that?” in the NRSV — is feminine in Hebrew, indicating that it refers to the woman.

Garrett, Word Biblical Commentary: Song of Songs, 175-184.

International Planned Parenthood Federation, “FPAHK Survey on Marriage and Sex.”

The following are recommended for further exploration:

Robert D. Austin and Lee Devin, “Knowledge Work, Craft Work and Calling” in Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri, eds., Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today's Economy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens Encyclical Letter (Homebush, N.S.W, Australia: St. Paul Publications, 1981).

Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis Encyclical Letter (Homebush, N.S.W, Australia: St. Paul Publications, 1987).

Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus Encyclical Letter (Boston: St. Paul Books, 1991).

Wilder Robles, “Liberation Theology, Christian Base Communities, and Solidarity Movements: A Historical Reflection,” in Richard L. Harris and Jorge Nef, eds., Capital, Power, and Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean, new ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

Shirley J. Roels, “Christian Manufacturers at the Crossroads,” in Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri, eds., Global Neighbors (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

Thomas W. Walker, “Who is My Neighbor? An Invitation to See the World With Different Eyes,” in Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri, eds., Global Neighbors (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).