This four-week summer series highlights three biblical books — Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon — that garner little attention in the Revised Common Lectionary and in most mainline churches’ preaching.1
And it is easy to see why. Proverbs is not scintillating reading to most modern readers. Ecclesiastes seems a “downer” sort of a book. And Song of Solomon is, at first reading, erotic poetry that seems more suited to a steamy romance novel than to Holy Writ.
Nevertheless, these three books are indeed part of Scripture, and it is helpful to read them as a group. All three books are in the Writings, the part of the Hebrew Bible (after Torah and Prophets) that includes, in general, the latest and last-canonized of the biblical books. Two of the books — Proverbs and Ecclesiastes — are part of the Bible’s Wisdom literature. And all three books are traditionally ascribed to King Solomon. In a perceptive, if ahistorical interpretation, the rabbis said that Solomon wrote Song of Solomon in amorous youth, Proverbs in seasoned middle age, and Ecclesiastes in disillusioned old age.
The relative lack of attention to these books in the modern church does not reflect the attitude of interpreters of previous generations. Martin Luther, for instance, called Ecclesiastes “this very beautiful and useful book” which “on many counts deserves to be in everyone’s hands and to be familiar to everyone.”2 In the Middle Ages, more than 100 commentaries were produced on the Song of Solomon. In fact, in the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song and never got past chapter 3 of the book!
These interpreters saw what many modern interpreters and preachers do not: that these books can provide the careful reader training in the daily life of faith and evocative images to stir the human heart to devotion. These texts are not narratives; they are poetry, and like all poetry, they communicate in language aimed as much at the heart as at the head.
A sermon to begin this summer series might begin by asking the question, “What does it mean to live ‘the good life’?” All of these texts ponder this question to some extent. They are concerned not so much with issues of salvation but with issues of how to live life in this world of God’s good creation.
Let’s consider each selection in turn:
Preaching text: Proverbs 1:1-7; 3:1-8
The book of Proverbs is the quintessential book of “Wisdom” in the Old Testament. Wisdom literature seeks to teach its readers/hearers “wisdom;” that is, the attitude and means by which to live well. This kind of common-sense wisdom is based not on revelation (no burning bushes here) but on experience and observation. Nevertheless, it is grounded in a right relationship with God: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; 15:33).
The task of all Wisdom literature is character formation. It exhorts young people to do well by doing good; that is, to have “the good life” by exhibiting the virtues of honesty, hard work, self-control, and above all, the fear of the LORD. Wisdom literature addresses issues of everyday life: economics, friends, family, work, sex, politics, etc. As Ellen Davis puts it, “The proverbs are spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour forth from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”3 Which is to say, most days.
A sermon on these texts might touch on these characteristics of Wisdom literature and then explore a concept that comes up again and again in that literature: the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 1:7; 3:7). “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” according to the sages. But what does it mean to “fear” the LORD? At its most basic level, the fear of the LORD is the knowledge that God is God and we are not. When we are faced with the power that called the universe into being, that scattered the stars in space, and that sustains the world every moment of every day, our proper response is awe, reverence, and yes, even (to some extent) fear. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
It’s the fear of the LORD that Mr. and Mrs. Beaver describe to the children in this scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
“Aslan is a lion — the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just plain silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver … “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”4
The fear of the LORD, the fear of the God who created the universe but who deigns to be in relationship with us, is the prerequisite for wisdom. Such proper fear teaches us our place in the world and how to live well in it.
Preaching text: Proverbs 8:1-11, 22-36
The text this second week moves from considering the fear of the LORD to describing the figure of Woman Wisdom. This personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8 serves as the counterpoint to the “strange woman” of the previous chapter. Like the strange woman, Woman Wisdom stands in public spaces calling out to passersby; but unlike the strange woman, Woman Wisdom points the way to life: “Whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death” (Proverbs 8:35-36). The world, for Wisdom teachers, is largely black and white. There is the way of death and the way of life. The choice is clear: Choose life.
The two different ways that a person might choose are personified by female figures: the strange woman and Woman Wisdom. Though some today may find such personification troubling, it is good to remember the culture out of which it comes: In ancient Israel, as in the wider ancient Near East, Wisdom literature was addressed to young men. And for young men, the literary use of female figures was a compelling way to talk about desire.
One interesting thing to note is that Woman Wisdom, like the strange woman, stands in public places (the crossroads, the city gates), where prostitutes (or prophets) call out. One could argue, then, that desire, in and of itself, is not bad. But what Proverbs teaches us is that desire must be rightly disciplined and focused; that is, not on material gain or on fleeting pleasure but on wisdom: “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (Proverbs 8:10-11).
The latter part of Proverbs 8 depicts Wisdom as the first of God’s creations, born before the world was created (Proverbs 8:25). Woman Wisdom here is either a “master worker” or a “child” (the Hebrew of verse 30 can be translated either way). In either case, it is through Wisdom that God creates the world with a certain order (verses 28-29) and delights in it. Wisdom teaches us to do the same, delighting in the beauty and order of the created world and seeking to live well in it.
Preaching text: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; 3:1-17
The book of Ecclesiastes is usually called “skeptical” Wisdom or “dissenting” Wisdom. The author of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, is a sage who has lived long and has grown weary of life’s vicissitudes. Death makes fools even of the wise. What does it matter how hard one works if after death one’s name is forgotten and one’s riches are given to someone else (Ecclesiastes 1:11; 2:18-19)? All is hevel (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The refrain runs throughout the book (25 times in all). Though traditionally translated “vanity,” hevel is better translated “absurdity, meaninglessness, vapor.”
And yet, the Teacher is not a nihilist. Like the author of Proverbs, the Teacher recognizes a certain reliable order that God has put in creation, a time and a season for everything (3:1-8). And the Teacher advocates humility, which is closely related to the fear of the LORD. We are to recognize our own mortality in the face of God’s eternity and be appropriately chastened: “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe [literally, “fear”] before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
The knowledge that life is hevel (fleeting, ephemeral) should lead us neither to asceticism nor to licentiousness. It should lead, instead, to humility and to a proper delight in the gifts of God. But such humility and delight are sometimes hard to come by in human nature. Indeed, Martin Luther writes of the misplaced desire that Ecclesiastes seeks to address:
“What is being condemned in this book, therefore, is not the creatures [i.e. the things God has created] but the depraved affection and desire of us men, who are not content with the creatures of God that we have and with their use but are always anxious and concerned to accumulate riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and then still others.”5
Luther’s description fits our society as much or more than that of 16th century Europe. Ecclesiastes seeks to address such soul-sickness with a reality check: We are going to die. Such knowledge, however, should lead not to despair but to humility and to delight in the gifts of God, even though we know they (and we) won’t last forever:
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart…. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your hevel life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9; see also 3:12-13).
It must be acknowledged that Ecclesiastes does not contain the fullness of the Gospel. It has no concept of resurrection. Nevertheless, for the way in which it addresses the kind of misplaced desire that permeates human society, for its description of the good life, and for its call to a proper humility, Ecclesiastes is well worth preaching.
Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7
We end this preaching series with the Song of Solomon. I have written of the Song at some length elsewhere on this website, so for the sake of space, I’ll refer readers to that commentary.
In short, there are two primary interpretations of the Song of Songs. The traditional interpretation is that it is an allegory of the love between God and Israel or between Christ and the Church. The dominant interpretation in modern times is that it is nothing more than ancient erotic love poetry.
I would argue that the Song is both of these things. It is a celebration of the love of a man and a woman for one another, a love “strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6), a love reflected in the renewed life of the earth itself (Song of Solomon 2:10-13). At the same time, the Song is also a celebration of the love between Christ and the Church, a love that is in fact stronger than death, sealed by the Resurrection.
As Phyllis Trible and Ellen Davis have both argued, the Song is a reversal of the curses of Eden. The relationship between man and woman is restored. In place of Eve’s punishment 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.”6 In fact, the woman’s is the dominant voice in the Song. She is in a full, robust, and mutual relationship with her beloved.
The rupture between humanity and the earth is also restored. Here, in the garden of the Song, there are no thorns and thistles (see Genesis 3:17-19). Indeed, the earth itself rejoices with the lovers.
Finally, the rupture between humanity and God is restored, if one understands the Song allegorically, as interpreters have done for 2000 years. One of the dominant biblical metaphors for the relationship between God and Israel (and later, Christ and the Church) is that of marriage. This metaphor takes some troubling turns in the prophets (see Hosea), but in the Song, the marriage is healed and renewed and rooted in love, love as fierce as the grave, love unquenchable (Song of Solomon 8:6-7).
This summer series ends with the Song of Songs. And it is appropriate that it does so because it is here, finally, in the Song, that we see what makes for the good life. That is, we see that the good life consists of right relationships — between man and woman, between humanity and the earth, and between humanity and God. In the love described in the Song, we see a reflection of the love that first called the world into being (Proverbs 8), that continues to sustain it season by season (Ecclesiastes 3), and that will bring it to new life beyond death itself (Revelation 21). Such love is worth preaching about, and the Song of Songs gives us evocative and lush language to do so.
1. Ecclesiastes shows up once and Song of Solomon twice in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary. Proverbs appears six times.
2. Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” Luther’s Works, vol. 15, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), pages 4, 7.
3. Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), p. 12. This commentary is a fine resource for exploring all of these biblical books in more depth.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1950), p. 80.
5. Luther, LW 15:8.
6. The Hebrew word translated “desire” occurs in the Old Testament only three times. The author of the Song, by using this rare word, is deliberately referring back to the Garden of Eden, where the rupture between man and woman first occurred.