"What in the world is this doing in the Bible?"
It's a not an uncommon reaction to a first encounter with the Song of Solomon (or, as it's known from the Hebrew title, the Song of Songs). A love song between a man and a woman full of lush and sometimes erotic imagery hardly seems appropriate for Holy Writ.
But here it is, in our Bible and in our lectionary readings. "My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag....My beloved speaks and says to me, 'Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away'" (Song of Solomon 2:9, 10).
Modern readers are not the only ones to be startled by the content of the Song. Its inclusion in the canon of Scripture was a matter of debate among rabbis in the first century CE. Some considered it little more than a drinking song. The matter was settled by the great teacher and mystic, Rabbi Akiba, who said, "The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies" (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5).
Early and medieval Christians shared this high opinion of the Song. Origen wrote homilies and a ten-volume commentary on it. In the Middle Ages, the Song was the subject of more commentaries than any other Old Testament book. Bernard of Clairvaux, in the twelfth century, wrote eighty six sermons on the Song (and did not even get past chapter 2)!
What is it about this book that has inspired such enthusiasm through the centuries? Modern scholars are almost unanimous in viewing the Song as a celebration of sexual love between a man and a woman. For Jewish and Christian interpreters of previous centuries, however, the Song described the mutual love of God and Israel or Christ and the Church.
Both interpretations can be supported by the text. At its most basic level, the Song of Solomon is indeed a celebration of human love. It consists primarily of dialogue between a pair of lovers, a man and a woman. There is no explicit narrative plot in the book. The scenes are connected instead by similar motifs and themes: passion, descriptions of physical beauty, memories of past encounters, and longing for the lover's presence.
The text selected for this Sunday (the only passage from the Song that is included in the Revised Common Lectionary) begins with the woman describing her beloved as a gazelle leaping over the mountains. Then the man speaks, and the imagery is lovely indeed: "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."
It is worth noting that the Song describes a love marked by fidelity and mutuality. The lovers are faithful to each other. They have eyes for no one else: "My beloved is mine and I am his" (2:16; 6:3). "My vineyard [the woman], my very own, is for myself; / you, O Solomon, may have the thousand" (8:12).
Likewise, the lovers share a mutual ardor for each other. The woman is neither shy nor submissive; in fact, she speaks more than the man. In a reversal of the punishment of Eve in Genesis 3:16 ("your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you"), the woman in the Song declares, "I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me."1 As Ellen Davis has argued, the Song reverses the curses of the Garden of Eden, including the rupturing of the relationship between man and woman.2 There is a mutuality about this love that repairs that rupture and places the lovers back into the Garden. (And, indeed, the Song is overflowing with images of lush gardens and abundant fruit; no thorns or thistles here.)
The Song celebrates faithful human love. For that reason alone, it could be argued, the Song deserves a place in Scripture. In a culture saturated with sexual images but sorely lacking in prominent examples of lifelong faithful love, this text celebrates love between a man and a woman that is marked by mutuality and fidelity. A sermon on such a topic (preached at weekly worship, and not just at a wedding) would be a gift to most any congregation.
But such an interpretation of the Song does not exhaust the possibilities inherent in the text. Pre-modern interpreters saw in this poetry a description and celebration of the love between God and Israel/the Church. Such an interpretation can look to other biblical passages for support. The metaphor of marriage for the relationship between God and God's people is attested in several biblical books. It is a relatively small step to see the Song as an extension of that metaphor, describing in more detail the extravagant love of God for God's people and (at last) the faithful love of the people for God.
The language of the Song itself seems to hint at such an interpretation. Davis suggests that the superscription "the Song of Songs, which is Solomon's" (1:1) may be meant to evoke the Holy of Holies, "Solomon's other 'superlative achievement,' that place of ultimate sanctity and deepest awe."3 Rabbi Akiba's comparison of the two, made after the destruction of the Temple, may be taken very literally. "Though the visible Temple be destroyed, through the medium of the Song, it is still possible for those who pray to enter the presence of 'the King'."4
Likewise, in what is perhaps the most famous passage of the Song, the woman says, "love is strong as death, / passion fierce as the grave. / Its flashes are flashes of fire, / a raging flame" (8:6). The phrase, "a raging flame," is more literally translated from the Hebrew, "a flame of the LORD." The divine name is linked with love at this key point in the text.
It is also worth noting that the word for "passion" can be translated "jealousy" or "zeal" and is used often (though not exclusively) in the Bible for talking about God's passion for Israel and Israel's (or the individual Israelite's) devotion to God (see Exodus 20:5; Numbers 25:11; 2 Kings 10:16; Psalm 69:9; Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 37:32; Zechariah 8:2). Davis notes especially the similarity to Deuteronomy 4:24, "For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God."5
Though such connections with other biblical texts do not necessitate a theological interpretation of the passage, they are suggestive of such an interpretation. Jews and Christians through the centuries have found in the Song inspiration for reflection on God's love and reflection on Christ's passion for the Church. A sermon on such a topic can draw on a rich tradition of interpretation.
Divine love and human love are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Human love, at its best, can be a glimpse, a reflection, of God's love. The Song of Solomon, with its distinctive biblical voice, gives the preacher a good opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the joy of both kinds of love.
1The Hebrew word translated "desire" occurs in the Old Testament only three times. The author of the Song, by using this rare word, is referring back to the Garden of Eden, where the relationship between man and woman was first damaged.
2Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000). I am indebted to Professor Davis for much of my interpretation of the Song.
3Ibid., p. 240.
4Ibid., p. 241.
5Ibid., p. 298. Davis pays close attention to the Hebrew text of the Song and offers many helpful insights about its possible allusions to other biblical texts.