YEAR B: PENTECOST
(Sunday between August 28 and September 3)
Song of Songs 2:8-13
Last week we read part of Solomon’s great prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem (see 1 Kings 8). This week we continue the focus on Solomon but from a different perspective. Solomon is traditionally known for his wisdom and his patronage of wisdom. So we turn today, and over the next month, to readings from two wisdom books of the Old Testament, Song of Songs and Proverbs, works traditionally associated with Solomon. Shortly, we will spend some time with the Book of Job, another wisdom book, although of a different ilk.
The Song of Songs is a unique example of ancient Hebrew literature. It is written in the style of ancient Middle Eastern love poems. It has long been associated with Solomon as the brief editorial heading shows: ‘The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s’. This may be related to the tradition of Solomon’s many marriages (1 Kings 11). The book is also called ‘The Song of Solomon’.
The poetry in Song of Songs is rather repetitive and lacks a clear structure. It seems to be the case that several secular love poems have been brought together over time. The speakers are not identified and the pronouns constantly change gender so that it is sometimes difficult to identify who the particular speaker is at the time. There is no narrative linking the speeches, and there is great use of imagery, often very elaborate and of a very sensual kind. It is partly for the reason of the love poetry that the compilers of the lectionary have associated the reading with Psalm 45, a psalm often associated with a royal wedding.
The erotic nature of the language in the Song, as well as its ‘secular’ nature, has given rise to a variety of interpretive methods being applied to the text. It has often been read as an allegory. In Jewish tradition the bridegroom has been interpreted as Yahweh and the bride as the Jewish people. The poem then becomes a retelling of the relationship between them from the Exodus onward through the exilic experiences and the restoration of the people in the land. Other Jewish mystics (such as Immanuel ben Solomon, 13th-14th centuries CE) saw the Song as representing the union of the active intellect with the passive. It is probably also for reason of the language that the Song has not been read publicly in synagogues from at least the 4th century. Instead it was (and is) prescribed in Jewish tradition for private reading during the Passover celebrations.
Christian interpretations included Origen’s belief (185-254 CE) that although the Song might be shaped on the marriage of Solomon with Pharaoh’s daughter, underneath this was the allegory of Christ as the groom and the bride as the church. This was adopted by Jerome, Augustine, John Wesley and the editors of the King James Version. For many Roman Catholic scholars the bride became the Virgin Mary. Martin Luther saw her as a symbol of the state, and according to this view in the poem Solomon thanked God for the loyalty of his people. Suffice it to say that the many and varied attempts to interpret the Song have never satisfactorily explained all of the various speeches and scenes.
Another way of reading the Song is to take the connection with Solomon and his love of wisdom as a guide and see the song as one full of love and praise for wisdom itself. Alternatively, if one sees the Song as revelatory, that is revealing something about God and not just a secular creation, then one might relate it to the love and sometimes erotic language used of God in the prophets, e.g. Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 2-3 and even in more pornographic style, Ezekiel 16 and 23. Whereas in those cases the language of love is used in relation to matters of ethical and/or religious practice, in Song it could be the case that the very human language of love reveals the depth of the passion within God for the people.
The verses for our reading come from chapter 2. Verse 8 begins a joyful celebration of love associated with the beauty of nature in springtime. There is a sense of a new beginning, of a new and heightened appreciation of what God has created. Yet none of this is experienced and appreciated until the male lover entices the woman to come and taste his delights. If the male lover in this sequence is seen to represent wisdom, he is luring the woman toward an appreciation of the fruits of wisdom. For her this is like the appearance of spring in her life. The coming of wisdom is represented by the appearance of light and warmth after the darkness and cold rains of winter (v. 11). If the male lover is seen as Christ, then the lure is to take up the life of discipleship.
The male lover lures her away from her closed-off world toward an expansive and joyful appreciation of God’s creation in springtime (vv. 9-10). The coming of spring with its signs of new life is a powerful incentive toward the seeking of new love, or the renewal of an old love. The possibilities seem to be unlimited, as all around nature reveals its glorious and powerful ability to survive the death of winter. It now blossoms and breathes new life. Such is the case in the southern hemisphere at the moment as the signs of spring begin to emerge around us. These may be the possibilities of a life imbued with wisdom, or a life deeply aware of the love of Christ.
In vv. 12-13 the male lover lures the woman to see wisdom’s creative power. The image is that of springtime. Beauty and creativity in life are represented in the colours and shapes of the spring flowers, and in the new songs of the birds. The blossoms on the vines are not only beautiful to look at they also produce a beautiful fragrance. All of this beauty culminates in the creation of nutritious fruit. The creative power of nature produces life in the fig tree and the figs support life and health in those who eat them. The same could be seen to apply to wisdom in the life of the wise. The woman responds appropriately with love for the man, who is himself wisdom. Alternatively, it could be revealing of the beauty and sustenance of the life of faith.
The way for the preacher to expound on these verses lies open. Many approaches can be used. To slip back into the earlier tradition of seeing the poetry as an allegory of Christ and the church may be an easy option but runs the risk of abusing the beauty of Scripture as well as of letting our old ways dominate the Word itself. It is a challenge for the preacher this week to let the beauty of this love poetry, with its imagery of young lovers and springtime and all that is anticipated, celebrated and rejoiced in that, become a way of exploring the ongoing love affair between God and all of creation. The (sometimes) erotic language of the Song may seem shocking to some, but we are dealing with a God in Christ whose love for us is both shocking to our sensibilities, in terms of the depth of that love in Christ, and seeking to shock us out of all that ties us to the ways of death, including our prejudices and ‘proper’ ways.
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