Virtually alone in the Bible, the Song of Songs celebrates romantic love. The Bible talks a lot about love of God and love of neighbor and love of family. But mostly the Bible does not talk about passion and romance, about being in love.
Except for the Song of Songs. The whole book is a series of love poems between two young people.
Some of the imagery in the book is now funny. I once read this to Carrie: “How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! . . . Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing” (4:1-2). If my goal was romance, I failed!
But even when the imagery is a little foreign, the passion and the intensity of the book come through.
And part of that passion and intensity comes from the frustration of the two young lovers. But they long to be together, but mostly they cannot.
In the verses that come immediately before our reading for this morning, the young woman says, “I am faint with love. O that his left hand were under my head and that his right hand embraced me!”
But because they cannot be together, because her lover cannot embrace her, the woman adds, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, . . . do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” (2:6-7). It is as if her frustrated longing has become so intense it hurts, as if it would be better for her not to love quite so much, at least not until she is in a position to be with the man she loves.
And yet, despite her pain and her frustration, the woman does not mean that. She would never give up her love. Near the end of the book come its most famous lines: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned” (8:6-7).
So the young woman waits—not patiently, but she waits. She waits for her beloved. She waits for the day when the beloved will come to her and say to her, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away.”
It is beautiful stuff, and it is fun to read. I am glad that the Bible includes a book that speaks to the experience of young adults, that the Bible has something to say that my teen-age boys might find stimulating.
But it is not immediately obvious how the Song is relevant to my life or, I suspect, to the lives of many of us.
Carrie and I just celebrated our twenty-third wedding anniversary a few weeks ago and, for better or for worse, we are mostly past the stage of intense longing. As best I can tell, Carrie does not wait for me by the door and think to herself as I drive up, “The sound of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.” To the best of my knowledge, Carrie does not think of me as her “gazelle or young stag.”
I may be wrong about that. But if I am wrong, Carrie does a good job of restraining herself when I walk in the door.
So what does this book about young love say to those of us who are in a different place in our lives?
According to the Christian fathers, quite a lot. They read the Song of Songs as an allegory for our relationship with God.
We desire true and total intimacy with God. And yet things stand in our way, which leaves us in the same frustrating place as the young woman in the Song: unable to get to our beloved, longing for the beloved’s embrace. The difference is, our beloved is God.
That is how the Christian fathers read the Song. Then, in an interesting twist, they claimed that the passion for God is NOT particularly for the young, that we can grow into a passionate longing for God over time.
They saw the Song of Songs as the third book in an Old Testament trilogy, all attributed to David’s son, King Solomon.
The first book is Proverbs, which is all about worldly wisdom, how to live and to succeed in this world, like an ancient version of How to Win Friends and Influence People or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Proverbs is a book for people making their way in the world.
Proverbs is helpful as far as it goes. But mostly Proverbs is concerned with worldly success, and many Christian fathers noted that worldly success cannot fully satisfy the soul. In our lives, we struggle, and we experience some successes and some failures. And then there can come a point when all that effort seems meaningless.
That is the message of the second book in Solomon’s Old Testament trilogy, Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher says, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (1:14). “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2).
Ecclesiastes is a little depressing. But it expresses a world-weariness that many people feel at some point in their lives. Ecclesiastes is for people who are asking themselves, “Is that all there is?”
According to the Christian fathers, that is when we really turn to God, after we have struggled to find our way in the world, after we come to see that the world is not enough. That is when we really long for more. We long for something or someone who can make life meaningful. We long for God.
In those moments, the passionate outbursts of the young woman in the Song of Songs speak for us. We listen eagerly for the voice of our divine beloved. We look for God’s coming to us. We want to hear God call us beloved and invite us into a deeper knowledge and love of our divine Lord.
The good news is that we do not need to long for God from afar. The good news is that we do not need to wait in frustrated longing for our beloved. The good news is that God calls us beloved even now. The good news is that God is here with us, in this place, inviting each of us to deeper intimacy with Him.
God is here in word and sacrament. God is here in our brothers and sisters in Christ. God is present in the ones Christ calls us to serve, the hungry and the homeless and the sick and the prisoners. All creation points us back to our creator and redeemer.
The question for us is, can we hear God’s voice? Can we see God’s glory? Can we open ourselves to intimacy with the Lord of all power and might?
My prayer for all of us is that we can and that we do, that we continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God until the very end of our lives. And I ask this in the name of Christ, the bridegroom of our souls. Amen.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13