Reflections on the Song of Solomon
"The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." (Song of Solomon 2:8-13, NRSV).
It seems strange to some people that words like these are found in the Bible. It goes against what we think we know of the Bible.
These words are from a book of the Bible few people know about. This little book of the Hebrew Bible is variously called " Song of Solomon" or "Song of Songs." It is a long poem about erotic love. Really, it seems to be a collection of poems that have been brought together into one. A church group would not want to do a verse-by-verse study of this book because of the frankly erotic imagery in the book.
It's about sex. It has at least an R rating.
The Bible is very frank about sex. It does not take a prudish attitude. I wouldn't describe the Bible as "sexy" so much as "earthy." It is open and honest about these things. People who have not actually read the Bible much are often shocked by its sexual content. Many years ago, when I was pastoring in the Muskegon area, I led an adult Bible Sunday School class and we were studying the book of Genesis. It was an interesting discussion. A man new to our church — a recovering alcoholic who wanted to know more about the Bible — joined the group. After a few weeks in the group he said: "Good grief, this thing is like a soap opera!"
And, of course, it is.
The Song of Solomon is part of a body of literature in the Hebrew Bible that is called the "Wisdom Literature." The books of Wisdom literature are life related. They speak to the here and now. They are reflections on life and how it is to be led. To the ancient Hebrews "wisdom" was the ability to live well. It was the ability to find happiness and fulfillment in life. We read in Ecclesiastes 3:12,13: "I know that there is nothing better for [people] than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil." (NRSV).
Here, in the Song of Songs, we find ourselves in the ancient Jewish wedding festival. This is where these poems were originally read. They speak of the celebration of erotic love and of romantic longing.
In particular, this passage seems to me to have the quality of a dream. An idealized lover, bounding over the hills like a gazelle, calling out in an idealized springtime, when everything is in bloom: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."
The Bible would not be complete without speaking about this aspect of life. Sexual love is the theme of the songs that come across the radio, the books we read, the TV shows we watch, the movies we see. It's a tremendously important part of life! God created us as sexual beings. It may be shocking at first when we discover this in our Bibles, but really, it's only natural that the Bible contains these poems that celebrate sexual love.
The celebrations associated with marriage are an ancient thing. Nothing could be more natural than celebrating at the time of a wedding. We read in the Gospel of John how Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding celebration in Cana of Galilee. We don't know if he attending the wedding. We know he went to the wedding reception. In the ancient world, those things went on for days.
I attend wedding receptions more often than some people do. You can often find me, along with many others, huddled at the outskirts of the hall, trying to carry on a conversation by shouting over the sounds of loud music. Oftentimes, there isn't anyone actually dancing. I'm not sure we know how to celebrate well. I know I don’t. But, we do know that there is something to celebrate. And, there is!
There is a longing deep within us, deeply a part of who we are, that causes us to reach out to another person. We desire to know and be known by that person. Let's face it folks, some of people's greatest life decisions are made (for better or worse!) on the basis of romantic love. The sexual desire is a deeply personal thing, coming out of the very core of our being. It can impel us toward great sacrifices and great good. The poet Dante's unrequited love for a woman named Beatrice led him to the very gate of heaven. But, it can also be the source of some of the stupidest decisions (and actions) that people make. It can degenerate into a selfish sensuality that loses respect and regard for other people and seeks only physical gratification.
When our sexuality becomes disconnected from our respect and regard for others it can become a monstrous thing. When sacred commitments are disregarded, and selfish desires dominate our lives, our lives become chaos. This, I think, is the danger pornography can sometimes have for people. It can dehumanize sex by making another person simply an object of sexual arousal. It can focus attention on sex itself — instead of the deep personal longings that are naturally connected with our sexual desires.
The danger of this has never been stronger than it is today. Today pornography is readily available on the Internet. In fact, pornography is the biggest business there is on the Internet. The lure of pornographic pictures is ensnaring many men. The false relationships they find in Internet chat rooms are ensnaring many women.
Many otherwise good, committed Christian people are drawn into this. This is why, more than ever, we need to understand and accept this sexual energy that is built into human personality. We should not be afraid of this part of ourselves. Calling it "evil" and suppressing it will not make it go away. Our sexuality is woven into the fabric of our being. The more we reject and suppress the sexual urge the more out-of-control it is likely to become.
Anyway, it's not evil. We are reminded of this as we read the Song of Songs.
The sexual drive is a powerful force. It is a powerful part of who we are. As with any powerful force, it can accomplish great good — or do great damage. Isn't that the way with all powerful forces? The electricity that lights our homes can also kill us if we simply touch a broken power line. I sometimes wonder if our sexuality should be called "a good gift of God" or a lion crouching at our door — seeking to devour us? It can be both.
The kinds of questions we must ask ourselves are these: Is what I am doing consistent with my belief in the worth and value of human beings? Is this enhancing my life or hindering my life? Is this helping me to live my life in the real world? Is this planting some sexual images in my mind that I do not want to be there?
We are not souls trapped in a physical body, but human beings: created in the image of God, male and female. What effects the body effects the mind as well. What effects the mind effects the body. Physical desires have an impact on our emotions and our mind. We are one. If we are to "glorify God in the body" (1 Corinthians 6:20) then how do we glorify God with our sexuality?
Our sexuality is a powerful emotional force within us. I think we should not fear it, but we should certainly respect it. When it awakens, it can do great good. It can lift us up. It can bring us joy and pleasure. It can impel us toward dreams and commitments that will enrich our life and the lives of others. But, it can also degrade us. That's why this warning is given three times in the Song of Songs:
"Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires." (Song of Solomon 2:17, 3:5, 8:4 NIV).
Yes, our sexuality is a powerful urge. It deserves our attention and respect. The question is not whether we will have a sexual drive. The question is what we will do with it. It is capable of great good and great evil. Do we awaken it for what enhances life or what degrades it?
But, at its heart it is a wonderful thing. For, it is this longing, deep within us, that impels people to stand before God and everyone and commit their very lives to one another. And, when this happens we celebrate. And, rightly so!
Here are two people committing their lives and futures to one another. For many months now they've been acting like fools. Holding hands and touching. Looking at each other longingly. Constantly desiring to be together. Engaging in public displays of affection. Reciting bad poetry. We roll our eyes. We shake our heads. Fools in love. But, look at them now. Nervous. Intense. Filled with a dream of their future and their life together. Terrified. "...I give you this ring as a sign of my vow, and with all that I am and all that I have, I honor you; in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
There is within us a desire to be known and valued. Not just generally known. Not just generally valued. But, personally known and valued for the particular person we are. When a romantic relationship fails, and someone says to their rejected suitor "But we'll always be friends" it's not good enough! How could it be? The rejected lover is outraged. "Not friends! You have many friends! I want to be the one. Not one among many."
It is to have someone say those very words: "...and with all that I am and all that I have I honor you...."
This is how it is with romantic love. It is the longing to be known and valued in our uniqueness. This is the kind of love that is spoken of in the Song of Solomon. It is not love in general, not that benevolent regard for the entire human race that we call "agape" love. Not just kindness. Not just friendship. No. It is particular love — focused on the particular, unique qualities of the one we love. In romantic love everything about the loved one is special and valued. Through the eyes of erotic love the loved one is like a miracle, like a revelation.
"My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the darling of her mother, flawless to her that bore her. The maidens saw her and called her happy; the queens and concubines also, and they praised her. "Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?" (Song of Solomon 6:9,10, NRSV).
If you've read the Song of Songs at all you know how this is expressed. The lovers delight in describing each other's bodies. They tell each other how beautiful they are in language that really sounds quite ridiculous to us — after all these years. I don't think any woman today would appreciate being described as having "hair like a flock of goats" or teeth "like a flock of ewes" or cheeks "like halves of a pomegranate" — she wouldn't know if she were being complimented or insulted!
The dream of romantic love is to be known and valued for who we are by someone we also love. To be called forth by name. "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."
Not all dreams come true. Some dreams go wrong. Some dreams live on only after great discouragement and trial. These things are especially true of the dream of romantic love.
In a sense, it never comes true. It's not that simple. Like all the greatest and deepest of human dreams it doesn't really come true. There are sometimes moments of wonder and delight. Maybe we really do experience the ecstasy of love and being loved — some people do, but not everyone.
But, the living out of our dreams always takes great courage and faith and hope. It is not easy.
Things never turn out to be quite the way you dreamed them. The dream of what love can be has to come up against the hard realities of life — and the realities of relationships.
Even the very best of human relationships is still a flawed relationship between flawed individuals. People sometimes feel that the dream of romantic love has betrayed them. Things don't turn out as they were dreamed.
But there is something to be gained in listening to our dreams. The dream of romantic love includes the desire to be known and loved for who we are. It is significant, I think, that the Song of Songs is the one book in the Bible where a female voice speaks for herself. Here, in this book, her voice is valued. The dream of love expresses the longing to be valued and honored in our uniqueness, our person-hood.
And, it's not an evil thing to see beauty and wonder in another human being. Hey, it's a good thing! It's not evil if it causes us to see and value that person as a human being. Really, our capacity for this is too small. The truth is that we are created in the image of God — don't you know? — and, there is a beauty in everyone that we are not always capable of seeing. God sees us as handsome and beautiful and wonderful — oftentimes tragic, yes — but nonetheless as God's "very good" creation. God delights in us.
God calls us into a relationship through Jesus Christ. "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." Can you believe you are beloved, honored, valued?
Well, you are.
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