08/23/20 “Love Song”

Song of Solomon 2:1-17, 8:6-7a    (Watch on YouTube)

Marc and I used to make a weekly pilgrimage to Family Video on Friday nights to rent DVDs. The store in our neighborhood recently closed down, so now we’re getting our movies on Netflix or Amazon or the library’s streaming service. That’s fine, but there’s one thing that we really miss: previews. Most of the DVDs we rented had previews of other movies, and that’s where we’d f titles to watch later on.

But, choosing a movie on the basis of the previews wasn’t 100% fool-proof. Most of the previews were described as “appropriate for all audiences.”  But, when we rented the movie, we sometimes got more than we bargained for in the sex and violence and adult language department.

Our passage for today is like one of those previews that is appropriate for all audiences.  It’s romantic for sure, but there’s not much that would cause parents to squirm if their children heard it.  But when you actually read the whole book, you’ll find that, if it were made into a movie, it would definitely be rated “PG” or maybe even “R”!

Before we get into this very steamy love story, let me tell you a little bit about this unusual book. First of all, different Bible versions give it different names. The New International Version translates the Hebrew title quite literally as the “Song of Songs.” The New Revised Standard Version calls it the “Song of Solomon,” based on the first verse which says “This is the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” But the Hebrew grammar of the title suggests even more than the NIV’s straightforward translation. A better translation would be the “Most Excellent of Songs” or even the “Most Sublime Song.” In other words, get ready for a blockbuster!

It’s not surprising that Solomon gets the credit for this book. Just as he is often given the credit for the book of Ecclesiastes because of his reputation for wisdom, he’s often credited with the Song based on his experience with women. He must have been something of an expert in the language of love songs, seeing as how he had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, and a thousand song lyrics to his credit. This poem is very similar to others that were written even before King Solomon’s reign, so it could have been his. But it’s just as likely that this is one of those pieces that’s attributed to a respected figure in order to secure its place in the literature of the wisdom tradition.

It may even be that the author was female. More than twice as many of the poem’s lines are spoken by the female lead as by her male co-star. The Song is the only book in the Bible where a woman speaks for herself, rather than having a (presumably) male narrator tell her story for her. She speaks of things that are unique about women’s lives, in a way that male culture would have considered inappropriate. So, some scholars suggest, it’s entirely possible that this poem was composed by a woman.

Do you remember some years ago when there was a Cheerios ad featuring an interracial couple and their little girl? General Mills got all kinds of hate mail about that. But, they weren’t the first to feature an interracial couple; the Bible got there first in the Song. The woman very clearly identifies herself as black and beautiful, with skin made even darker by the sun. Even though some Bible versions call her “dark” rather than “black,” there’s no question about the Hebrew words she uses. She is black, and later she’ll compare her lover’s legs to alabaster. He is white. This is clearly a story about an interracial couple.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the Song is the only book in the Bible that never mentions God or God’s people at all. The book of Esther doesn’t mention God by name either, but it’s clearly a story about God’s people. Not so with the Song. This is a purely secular love story, told as the poetic lyrics to a song. It is unabashed in its descriptions of love in all its physical and emotional glory. In fact, it is so explicit that, by the 2nd century, it had become very popular in the more unsavory parts of town. Think karaoke in a seedy bar.

So, with that bit of background, let’s move on to the story. Here’s a “Reader’s Digest” version for those who didn’t do their homework, or a refresher for those who did. A handsome young man and an exquisitely beautiful young woman are in the throes of romantic love.  It’s springtime.  Everything around them is bursting with new life.

They long for each other.  They dream about the moments when they can be alone together, and they plan for where and how they will spend those moments.  They speak of their feelings for each other with lush imagery from nature.  They use humor and innuendo and private lovers’ language to tease and cajole and arouse.

But all is not smooth sailing for this passionate couple.  He speaks of love and then disappears.  She seeks him in the dead of night, wandering the darkened streets of the city alone, begging the sentries to tell her if they’ve him.  She searches until she finally finds him, and she brings him into her mother’s house, into the very room where she herself was conceived.

Some days later, he comes to her.  The hour is late, and she resists opening the door to him.  Then she reconsiders and opens the door, but she’s too late; he’s gone.  Again, she braves the dark streets, but this time she becomes the victim of the sentries; they beat her and wound her and, as she says in her restrained way, they “took away her mantle.”

Other people challenge their relationship.  Her friends taunt her when he doesn’t show up as planned.  They are skeptical about her claims of how wonderful he is.  And there is some other obstacle lurking in the background. Their relationship may be socially unacceptable for some reason.  Maybe it’s race. Maybe it’s class.  Her place in the community may be uncertain.  Her brothers have been angry with her—forcing her to “keep the vineyards,” she says. Perhaps she’s had to literally work in the fields, or this may be a euphemism for more unsavory work.  Her brothers suspect her of a forbidden love.  They utter doubts and threats about her honor.  Finally, in the end, we’re not quite certain whether the lovers will end up together or not.

This steamy love story has it all—love, sex, violence, lush scenery, even humor. It’s a great story, but it raises the question, “What’s it doing in the Bible?” Why is this book, with its secular themes and no mention of God at all, part of our sacred scripture? We don’t know why it was included originally. But, while it’s perfectly acceptable to read and enjoy it simply as the wonderful story it is, it also tells us some things about ourselves and God that can help guide our lives of faith today.

The first lesson is about the emotions involved in human relationships. This story touches on so many aspects of our relationships with other people, whether they’re romantic ones or ones between friends and family members.  There’s a sense of commitment and even possession. Nearly sixty times in these eight short chapters, the couple uses words like “my beloved,” “my love,” and many more endearments—some easy to recognize, others that are insider language known just to the two of them.  But, there is also a skittishness when it comes to full commitment.  He asks her to meet him, but doesn’t say when or where.  He knocks on her door, and she refuses to answer.

As in this story, our own relationships include both intimacy and distance.  At times we may be like the two lovers, peering at each other through a barrier, tween us, wanting to be together but not sure how to connect. COVID is making this a literal reality in many cases, but there are other things that make us feel as though we can’t connect with the ones we love.

There are times when our relationships seem absolutely secure, and others when we’re not altogether sure where we stand.  There are times when we have to work to re-establish severed ties and, like the maiden who hears the voice of her beloved, we’re joyful when we reconnect.  Like the lovers in the story, our relationships include playfulness and joy, disappointment and resilience, a deep longing for each other and fear of getting too close.

Like the lovers in the story, our relationships are affected by outside influences.  We, too, encounter destructive “little foxes” that can ruin the vineyards of our relationships. Feelings of jealousy or insecurity can eat away at our love. Our work and our pastimes distract us. Disapproving family members and friends or the expectations of society cause us to doubt ourselves and our feelings. This story has much to reveal to us about how we respond emotionally in our relationships with others.

It also has much to reveal about our bodies. This is the second lesson it has for us. The Song is a celebration of the human body in all its physicality—its beauty, its strength, its hungers.  There’s no shame or discomfort about the lovers’ bodies.  They speak openly of each other’s physical forms, sometimes so openly that their words might make you blush.  No one who reads this book, and remembers that it is scripture, can ever believe that human bodies are ugly, evil things to be escaped. Genesis reminds us that God made our human bodies and saw that they were very good. In the fullness of time, God came to us in a human body.  No one who reads this book, and remembers that it is scripture, can doubt that our bodies are precious and something to be enjoyed and celebrated.

The third lesson is about our intimate connection with the natural world. In the Song, nature provides the setting where the romance takes place.  Vineyards and pastures, mountains and fields, gardens and orchards all offer the lovers a refuge from the world around them. Even the change of seasons welcomes them with spring’s gentle weather and abundant new life. The beauty of flowers and fruit, animals and birds, spices and precious stones also mirror the couple’s beauty and their love for each other.  Their bodies and emotions respond to the physical world, and their appreciation runs all through the words they speak to and about each other.

The Song’s beautiful images should spur us to look at the world around us with fresh eyes. We should allow them to take us back to the garden of Eden, to that time of unspoiled relationship between human beings, between humanity and creation, and between humanity and God.

We should cultivate a deep connection with the earth like the lovers had—a connection that springs from the fact that we are created from both Spirit and earth. The Song should remind us of what a gift we have been given, and how God has entrusted it to our care. As our bond with the God’s creation grows, we’ll find ourselves becoming more passionate about doing all we can to care for it and preserve God’s creation.

Finally, even though it was written centuries before Jesus walked the earth, the song gives us a way to think about our Triune God. In the Song, humanity and nature are inseparably bound together by love. There’s no way to fully comprehend one without the other.  If you took away any one of the three, the poem would fall apart.  Without the couple’s need for nature as the setting for their love, the natural world would lose its luster and meaning. Without the beauty of nature, the lovers’ ability to describe and communicate their love would be impoverished. Without love, there would be no story to tell.

Just as humanity, nature, and love are inseparable in the Song, so it is with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  These three are never separate from one another.  You can’t understand one without the other two.  Just as humanity, nature, and love are always present in the Song, the three persons of our Triune God are always present, always acting in eternal unity in our lives and in the world. The one-ness of humanity, nature, and love expressed in the Song embodies the constant one-ness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bound together in eternal relationship.

The Song of Solomon sings to us a story about our bodies and emotions, our relationships, and our connection with the natural world.  Without ever mentioning God’s name, it also reveals something of the nature of our loving, Triune God.  What rating would you give a love story that can do all that?  If you read it all the way through, you’d probably give it a “PG” or even an “R.” But I would give it a “G”: “G” for the goodness it describes, “G” for the gift that this story is, “G” for the grace by which this story has come down to us through the ages.  I would give it a “G” for our Triune God, who is the source of all we have to sing about.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young