The “Song of Songs,” also known as the “Song of Solomon,” has not had an easy time of it, as far as books of the Bible go. Whether or not it should be included in the Bible at all was more than once a matter of heated debate as the contents of the canon were being selected, and in fact it may have only squeaked in due to its already-established popularity among the people of Israel.
We can easily imagine why some early Christian leaders raised questions about the Song. Picture a group of the early “Christian fathers”, in the third or fourth century or so, still making decisions about what’s right and wrong for their young church, having recently decided to make their stand on the belief that celibacy is the most desirable lifestyle for Christians when it comes to questions of male/female relationships. Oh, it’s okay to be married if you must, they have allowed, but the ideal to aspire to if possible is a life without physical intimacy, without desire, without involvement with the opposite sex. Priests, for example, are to be unmarried and celibate, as will also be monks and nuns. Intimacy is regarded at best as a necessary evil, and at worst as nothing more than a temptation, a sin, a failure. The ideal life, they have decided, is one without physical intimacy; that’s what God considers best.
Then they come upon passages, passages of Scripture, like this: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefor the maidens love you. Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you” (1:2-4). And:
“As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to his banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love. Oh that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!” (2:3-6). And:
“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one sweet jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice! Your lips distill nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue” (4:9-11). And:
“I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me. Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields . . . and there I will give you my love” (7:10-12).
No wonder this book made them nervous – and those aren’t even the most explicit parts. “Why it’s almost enough to get the Bible banned from public libraries,’ a Rev. Copenhaver wrote. “If young adolescents get ahold of it, they might begin to read the Bible with flashlights under their covers at night. It is the little book that just won’t behave.”
“Why this book doesn’t even once mention God!” the early Christian leaders could have said, and probably did. “Not once!” But here they were stuck with it in their Bible. What’s a church father to do?
What they decided to do, ultimately, was find an explanation as to what the Songs of Songs was “really” about. See, it couldn’t just be about kisses and caresses, from their perspective. On the one hand, it was part of God’s Word, but on the other hand they had just decided that what pleased God most was one’s withdrawal from things like kisses and caresses. Therefore, it must speak in terms of kisses and caresses, they decided, but really be about something else; it must be an allegory. Yeah, that’s it! An allegory!
An allegory is a story or a writing in which the characters or objects presented stand for something else; they point to a higher truth. In one of Jesus’ parables about a woman losing one of her ten silver coins, for example, and searching carefully till she finds it, and then rejoicing with her friends, the lost coin stands for a person who has wandered away from God, and the woman stands for God, diligently searching, and the rejoicing is what happens when God brings the lost person back again.
All this mushy talk about kisses and embraces and sweet lips and stuff must be an allegory, they said. That’s why God let the Song into the Bible. So the fathers set about the task of identifying what it stands for:
Perhaps, they began, it is about a relationship, but the relationship is between God and the people of Israel, not a man and a woman. The man, the “beloved,” could stand for God, and the woman, the maiden, the “bride,” for Israel. Then the book could be about how God loves the people of Israel and wants the people of Israel to love God and to be faithful. Maybe that’s what it’s “really” about.
Or maybe the love in the story, they said, stand for Christ and the Church. After all, there’s been other talk about the church being like Christ’s “bride.” Maybe what we’ve got here is a description of the ideal relationship between Christ and the Christian Church.
Other readers of the Song weren’t satisfied with that particular symbolism, however; they preferred to find personal messages in each passage of Scripture: what is this saying about me, personally? So they tried this allegory instead: Maybe the book is about the love between Jesus and me, about Christ and the individual believer. “The beloved” stands for Jesus, “the bride” for the individual Christian – male or female – and the love spoken of is the pure, unphysical love between Jesus and that person.
A later interpretation made the Song even more personal: An explanation from the Middle Ages presented it as describing something going on completely within the individual. The love spoken of, this attempt said, is the active and passive parts of one’s own intellect . . . longing for each other, a completely within-the-brain relationship. I confess I don’t quite understand that one.
The Song of Songs, it has been said, is really about the love between Mary and the Church, or Mary and the individual believer. The Song of Songs, it has been said, is really about when the Jews were in exile in Babylon, and were writing of their love for their homeland far away.
The Song of Songs, it has been said, is really about the love we should have for divine wisdom. In this case, God’s wisdom is symbolized by the bride, the female character, as it is in the book of Proverbs. Or other early writers suggested that the Song wasn’t about any people at all, but about male and female aspects of God speaking with each other – in other words, that the book presents a conversation going on entirely within God’s own head.
Or perhaps, they offered, the Song is really a dream. This explanation, by the way, was written centuries before famous episodes of TV shows like “Dallas” and “Bob Newhart” tried to explain things in terms of dreams. This is quite an original approach – though I’m not sure where it leads.
There is a curious thing about all this scholarship though: There is no evidence that when it was first written, and in the first few hundred years of its use, that the Song of Songs ever was considered an allegory, that people looked for deep symbolic meanings. Our earliest documented use of it was that it was sung at marriage feasts – real marriages, with a real bride and groom. From all the information we have, readers for centuries considered it to be just what it seems to be: the story of a man and a woman in love.
And notice that the Song itself makes no mention of being allegorical or symbolic. It’s not like in the gospels, where the writers say of some of Jesus’ stories, “now get ready, this is a parable, a story with symbolic meaning”; there are no such indications. The Song presents itself, simply, as the story of a man and woman in love. Could it be that it’s not symbolic, that it’s exactly what it sounds like, that we don’t need to play with symbols and allegories and dreams to find its message?
Well as a matter of fact, the vast majority of writers on the subject today, long centuries after the early Christian fathers were made nervous by the imagery, do consider it to be just the way it presents itself: a poem celebrating the romantic love between a man and a woman. The word “embrace” means embrace; the word “lips” means lips; the “man” is just a man and the “woman is just a woman. You must remember this: a “kiss” is just a kiss. Not a symbol, not a sign, not an obscure mysterious clue.
The New Jerusalem Bible puts it this way: “The Song is a proclamation of the lawfulness and an exaltation of the value of human love. It celebrates loyal and mutual love, the affectionate and stable association of a woman and a man. It teaches the excellence and dignity of the love that draws men and women together.” In short, the “Song of Songs” is the Bible’s affirmation of romantic love, the Bible’s statement that not only is this kind of strong feeling all right, it’s good; it is a gift of God. The “Song of Songs” is written in praise of romantic love. Its presence in the Bible, which we believe was shaped by the Holy Spirit, becomes then God’s affirmation of romantic love.
Now this doesn’t mean we all need to be pairing up desperately from an early age, with the first person who comes along. The Song is not a command to get passionately involved with someone at every opportunity. There are healthy relationships and unhealthy ones, people who are quite fine, thank you, uninvolved. There are times for intimacy, and times not for intimacy, and times to postpone it. And the Bible provides guidance elsewhere on those questions too.
But what we do have here, at the very least, is a statement that with the right person at the right time, romantic love is a good thing, is not just a necessary evil, is smiled upon by God. It is a gift. It is not all there is to life, or most important, and it does not replace love for God or love for our neighbors, but it is a good thing.
Martin Copenhaver, a United Church of Christ pastor, gave this example in an issue of the magazine “Christian Century”: “Encountering these love songs in the pages of the Bible reminds me of the time when, as a teenager, I discovered ardent letters written by my grandparents when they were in the throes of young love. The discovery completed my picture of them. They were real people after all, animated by the kind of impulses and yearnings I knew quite well. These dignified and upright people – who before my discovery I could only imagine going to bed fully clothed – also had a love for another that was as hungry and tumultuous as the sea. And as their lives demonstrated, passionate love for another person need not replace God, but can enlarge a life in ways that make more room for God, which makes it easier to see God.”
His memories of his grandparents were not ruined by his encounter with the writings of strong romantic feelings – he did not need to explain them away; rather those memories were made complete. A new dimension had been added, rounding out the picture. And in the same way, the Song shows us, romantic love can be one dimension of life, without ruining the rest of it, without driving out our love for God and love of neighbor and pursuit of the life God wants.
Finally, the “Song of Songs” can also correct misconceptions about love which people have attributed to Scripture; it works as a corrective, Renita Weems points out in the “Women’s Bible Commentary.” People have misread Genesis 3, for example, and said that Adam and Eve’s sin had something to do with sex, and that therefore all such intimacy is somehow sinful; the Song says “no; intimacy is fine.” People have read Old Testament stories of arranged marriages and concluded that maybe love is not needed to begin a good marriage, that maybe parents should choose our spouses; the Song says “no; love is good.” They have tried to establish a hierarchy where the man makes all the decisions and does all the talking for both; the Song clearly presents two voices, each person expressing themselves, with no mention of submission or control. They have seen an unmarried Jesus and an unmarried Paul and tried to hold lifelong celibacy up as the idea for everyone; the Song says “romantic love is just fine.” It may not be for everyone; it may come later in life than you wish or expect; it may cause heartbreak along the way- but it is not something wrong.
So today we often use this book in the church setting most appropriate for it. I have spoken these words many times in wedding services: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, passion as relentless as the grave. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of their house, it would be utterly scorned. “ The Bible speaks in praise of romantic love. Thanks be to God.
Let’s pray: God thank you for the Song of Songs’ affirmation of romantic love, as something which can be a good part of a faithful life. Please help all of us to decide wisely and faithfully what part romantic love should play in our lives, and when. Amen.