Scripture: Song of Solomon 2:8-14
A couple weeks ago I asked you all for some help with my post-Easter worship planning, and I asked what you’d like to hear a sermon on – whether that was a favorite passage from the Bible, one you had a question about, a certain topic, or just an attempt to stump me. One of the first responses I got was, “Have you ever preached on Song of Solomon?”
I had not, so, here we are.
First of all, I’d like to hear what you all know about Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, as it is also called. When you hear that title, what comes to mind?
Here’s just a little background on the book. First of all, it was not written by King Solomon. It was common in ancient literature to attribute a work to someone famous, but the Hebrew is too late for when Solomon would have lived (the same goes for Ecclesiastes, which is also attributed to him) and it also refers to Solomon in the third person a bunch. It was probably attributed to Solomon because it is love poetry, and Solomon was said to both write songs and be quite the ladies’ man. Secondly, its alternate title, Song of Songs, is a Hebrew way of saying “the best song” or “the ultimate song.” Third, as mentioned, this is love poetry, the kind we might see from a number of others Ancient Near Eastern or Middle Eastern cultures. When I read it I think of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (though he wrote much later): “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.” Song of Solomon may be one long poem or it may be a collection of little ones, put into the voices of a man and a woman who are lovers.
You just heard one passage, which I picked because that is the one passage from Song of Solomon that ever appears in the lectionary, but can I read you some others?
“The song of songs, which is Solomon’s,” the book opens. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” speaks the woman’s voice. “For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is perfume spilled out.” (1:2-3)
“How beautiful you are, my love!” says the man, a little later in chapter 4. “How very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil! Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead!” (I tell you, guys do not talk like that anymore.) “Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing….Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.”
We get the sense at times that this is a forbidden love – both in chapter 2: “There [my love] stands, behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice” and later, in chapter 8, with the woman’s brothers threatening to “barricade” her. There’s a Romeo and Juliet vibe going on here. The lovers plan their escape. “Come, my love,” says the woman, “let’s go out to the field and rest all night among the flowering hennas. Let’s set out early for the vineyards. We will see if the vines have budded and the blossoms opened, see if the pomegranates have bloomed. There I’ll give my loving to you.” (CEB)
It gets even steamier at times, and instead of expanding on that, I will simply recommend chapter 5 for your own devotional reading at home.
It’s beautiful poetry, even if some of the metaphors strike us as a little strange today, like the whole “your hair is like a flock of goats” bit. We get this picture of love blossoming between two young people at the same time spring is blossoming all around them. The world is coming alive, and so are they.
But it does kind of beg the question of what this is doing in the Bible. God is not mentioned at all in Song of Solomon, and nothing really seems to distinguish it from secular poetry of the same genre, and besides, like chapter 5, some of it can be a little awkward to read in church, like you want to tell the speakers to get a room.
All that plays into why I’ve never preached on Song of Solomon before, and why it probably doesn’t get preached on a whole lot in general, mostly just read at the occasional wedding.
Yet there was a first century rabbi, Rabbi Aqiva, who famously said, “All Scripture is holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
For centuries, what made Song of Solomon holy to people is reading it not as love poetry between two people, but between God and Israel, or later between Christ and the church. Personally I think that any claims that that’s what it is meant to be are a little overblown, attempts to take something that seems inappropriate for church and make it appropriate for church (or perhaps synagogue.) Then again, we do find some similar imagery other places in the Bible, like the prophet Hosea, where Israel is depicted as God’s wife. (I do not recommend reading Hosea for a wedding, though, and if you read it, you will know why – and, maybe you’ll have some more questions for me to preach on.) So maybe those of us, like me, who are quick to dismiss any interpretation of Song of Solomon that seems to over-spiritualize things, are also just a little bit uncomfortable with the image of God as lover. Parent, we got that one, that’s OK – but lover, that’s a little awkward.
What I believe, though, is that Song of Solomon gives us the best of both worlds: a celebration of very human romantic love, and a fresh way to encounter the love of God.
If we take it at face value – that it is love poetry depicting the relationship between two young lovers – then isn’t it kind of beautiful that that sort of thing gets canonized in Scripture? To think that God celebrates that kind of love, the kind that brings joy to the souls of two people?
So many of the relationships we read about in the Bible are so far from the one depicted here. In the Old Testament we have women who are essentially traded between men, fathers and husbands. We have stories where one man is married to multiple wives and drama ensues, like with Sarah and Hagar or Rachel and Leah. We have rules in books like Leviticus: here are the ways romantic (or at least legal and physical) relationships are supposed to and are not supposed to look.
But in Song of Solomon, we have a relationship characterized (as many commentators have pointed out) by both mutuality and fidelity.
In Song of Solomon, the woman isn’t simply the subject of a transaction between men. She has a voice (in fact, it is the most any woman is given a voice anywhere in the Bible.) She initiates the relationship as much as the man does. And in Song of Solomon, faithfulness of one lover to another is celebrated. “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” says the woman. “Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon,” the man says in chapter 8. “One would bring in exchange for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver. My vineyard, my very own, is before me. You can have the thousand, Solomon – with two hundred for those who tend the fruit.” (8:11-12 CEB)
Amid all the other examples of relationships that might be questionable from a modern standpoint, it is pretty nice to have this one part of the Bible that many of us can relate to, at least as an ideal. This kind of love, Song of Solomon seems to tell us, is not something to be embarrassed to include among more spiritual pieces of writing. Instead, it’s something to celebrate as an aspect of the abundant life that God wants for us.
Now to be clear, that’s not to say that you’re missing out on God’s grace and abundant life somehow if you are not married or in a romantic relationship, either by choice or by circumstance. God’s grace and blessing can be known in many aspects of life and all kinds of relationships, including family relationships and friendships and there is nothing wrong with not being part of this particular kind, at any given time or forever. Neither, as far as we know, was Jesus. Or the apostle Paul.
It’s also not to say that God expects your marriage, for instance, to maintain the level of passion you may have once felt. Love changes and matures over time. I’m pretty sure God knows that, and also calls it good.
It’s just to say that when it comes to love and romance and partnership, Song of Solomon may give us a better picture of what God wants for us than, say, the story of Jacob working for seven years to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage from her father only to be tricked into marrying her sister Leah instead and working seven more years for Rachel: love that is mutual and life-giving for everyone involved.
But the other thing I think this book of the Bible does have for us is the chance to hear these words, this love poetry, as if it is from God.
A few weeks ago I preached on the question Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And I told you that the kind of love Jesus was looking for wasn’t romance but commitment. And I’m here to tell you today that maybe I was wrong.
Like I said before, I’m not sure that’s always a comfortable image for us. When I was applying to seminary, I had to go interview beforehand for a scholarship I was trying for. I wrote my essay for this scholarship application – and I’ve actually preached on this here before – on the Gospel according to Bridget Jones’s Diary, and how when Mark Darcy tells Bridget, “I like you very much, just as you are,” that that’s how God feels about us. Well, that day I sat before my interview committee made up of a couple professors and seminary admins and maybe a previous scholarship recipient, and one of them asked me, “So, is Mark Darcy like God in any other ways?”
It was one of those questions you know you just don’t have a good answer for, since I had spent my whole essay writing about this one way which I thought was pretty brilliant. I mumbled something about Mark Darcy working for justice, since he was a lawyer in the book. It was clearly not the answer anyone was looking for.
So the professor prompted me, “Is God like a lover?”
And I sat there awkwardly and just said, “Well…that’s not really my image of God….”
And it wasn’t. But for a whole lot of people in the Christian tradition, it has been their image of God. In medieval times the mystics sought spiritual union with God in terms they described as the love of a lover. Julian of Norwich, for example, in her book A Revelation of Love, writes of Jesus, “I saw him and sought him; I had him and wanted him.” If we shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about human romantic love as if it is holy, maybe we also shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about the love of God as if it were romantic and passionate.
I think maybe when we talk about God’s love our language is so common that it becomes trite. We know God loves us, right? But it’s God, so it doesn’t really count. “Smile! God loves you.” Or as the bumper sticker reads, “God loves you. Everyone else thinks you’re a jerk.” (It doesn’t say “jerk.”)
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…got it. We memorized that one in Sunday School.
God loves you. We either hear the words and barely register them, or we believe them in some distant, benevolent sense that doesn’t really touch the soul like the poetry it is.
Listen: God loves you.
Sometimes we need the love of a caring, protective, comforting Father or Mother, and God is there for us. Sometimes, we need the love of a best friend, and God is there for us. But sometimes we need to hear that we are beautiful, desired, the one and only – and when that is the case, God is there for us too.
I wonder what it would be like to really hear these words from Song of Solomon as if they were from God: “I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.” “How beautiful you are, my love.”
Have you ever doubted that you are loved?
Have you ever thought that God is Romeo to your Juliet, or maybe Juliet to your Romeo, or however you’d like to put that – coming around at night and peeking through the lattice (but not in a creepy way)?
Can you imagine?:
God is taking another route home today, hoping to run into you.
God is writing poems about you and doodling your name in God’s notebook.
God is staring at the phone and waiting for you to call.
God still sometimes feels butterflies when God looks at you.
God is so, so happy just to be in your presence.
God thinks you are beautiful, and wants nothing more than just to look at you for a while.
God is willing to sacrifice everything for you, to pick up and move across the world to be with you, even to die for you.
If you ever doubted it for a moment – God doesn’t just love you, God is in love with you, and no matter what anyone tells you, you are beautiful in God’s eyes.
That’s what this love poetry, and its inclusion in Holy Scripture, has for us to hear.
A lot of times I know people like it when a sermon has a takeaway, a challenge, when it charges them with something to do. And yes, it matters how we respond to this love. But that’s not for this week. This week, there’s no charge. There’s nothing to do. There’s nothing you even could.
God loves you. Sometimes, I think, we just need to be reminded.