The Song of Songs

25 July 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for Matins, 25 July 2004, Westminster Abbey

by the Reverend Dr. Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

The Song of Songs

Readings: Song of Songs 2, 1 Peter 4:7-14

So far as I can recall, when I was a student, little attention was paid to the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon). Thirty years later I find myself wondering what it is really about, how it ever got into Scripture, and why chapter 2 was chosen as our first reading this morning. Thinking about it now, I am really quite surprised that the Song of Songs was so much overlooked when I was being taught how to read the Bible, because in the Middle Ages it was perhaps the most widely studied and best loved of all the books of the Old Testament, especially amongst monks and nuns. In the twelfth century, St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a series of eighty sermons on the first two chapters alone. He followed a long tradition of interpretation, both Jewish and Christian, which read the Song of Songs allegorically. For most Jewish commentators, the Song of Songs was really about the love between God and Israel. When, in the third century, the Christian Origen wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs he approached it as an allegory of the love between God and the Church, or God and the soul of the believer. In the sixteenth century, St John of the Cross and St Theresa also read the book in this way. To them it was about the relationship between Christ, the groom, and the Church or the individual soul, the bride. The love of which the book speaks is the love of God for human beings and the love of human beings for God. Almost alone amongst ancient Christian commentators, in the late fourth century, Theodore of Mopsuestia read the Song of Solomon literally, as a love poem, for which he was officially condemned, but from the sixteenth century this interpretation, based on the plain meaning of the text, began to gain ground. It is now difficult to read the Song of Songs in any other way.

If it is right to read the Song of Songs as a love poem, or a series of love poems written from the point of view of the man and the woman, this raises very sharply the question as to why such a book should have been included within the canon of Scripture. It is easy to see why those with a devout turn of mind preferred to read the text allegorically. Quite apart from the overtly sexual content, this approach solves the problem as to why God is not mentioned from start to finish throughout this particular book of Scripture: if it is taken as an allegory, we can say it is all about God, and about love for God. The problem is that, though the text may indeed at one level be all about God, there is nothing to indicate that the author or authors thought it to be about anything other than what they described: human love and the physical expression of human love. Jewish and Christian commentators were, however, encouraged to read the Song of Songs allegorically because of its place in the Scriptures. Christians, in particular, from an early date read it against the (much later) Epistle to the Ephesians, in which the writer quotes the text, ‘A man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’, and then goes on to say, ‘This is a great mystery (in Latin sacramentum) and I take it to mean Christ and the church’ (Eph 5:31-2). In the Jewish Scriptures, however, the basis for interpreting the book allegorically has never been so clear: it is placed between the Book of Job, in which God tests Job through the tragic events of his life, and the Book of Ruth in which the faithfulness of the widowed Ruth to her mother-in-law brings her to the point where she finds fulfilment in the love of Boaz. In the books of the Hebrew Bible which frame the Song of Songs, God is to be found in the experiences of human lives, both bad and good. The same is true of Proverbs and the Wisdom literature in general. It is characteristic of the Wisdom literature that it comments on the way of the world, on human experience, without making any explicit reference to God.

This is all very well when the discussion is about reward and punishment, wisdom and folly, faithfulness and unfaithfulness. It is not so easy to accept when the text is so explicitly erotic. There is nothing in the Song of Songs about what we think of as ‘morality’ – nothing about the disciplined expression of sex, nothing about sexual fidelity, nothing about sexual restraint – for that one has to look elsewhere in the Scriptures. The Song of Songs is about sexual passion in the same way that the sonnets of Shakespeare are about sexual passion. The context in the Scriptures suggest that this passion is to be understood as the gift of God, but this is never made explicit. All one can say is that the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the Scriptural canon amounts to the strongest possible affirmation of wonder at and delight in human sexual chemistry.

There is a further point to make about the literary expression of this delight. It is the imagery of the Song of Songs which makes it such an extraordinarily rich text. The beauty of the human body and the wonder of love is spoken of in terms of flowers, fruit, animals, jewels, spices, scent, water, wine, a garden, the countryside, the moon, the sun, and so on. It is as if all the rich resources of observation and human experience are being drawn on to speak of one thing - the love which is the theme of the book:

‘As a lily among brambles,
So is my love among maidens.
As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
So is my beloved among young men.’ …(2:2-3)
‘O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
In the covert of the cliff,
Let me see your face,
Let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
And your face is comely.’ (2:14)
Even the season of the year is the right one for love:
‘My beloved speaks and says to me:
"Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
for lo the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
The time of the singing has come,
And the voice of the turtledove
Is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
And the vines are in blossom;
They give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’ (2:10-13)

The sexual imagery is extraordinary delicate: the woman is clearly speaking when she says, ‘I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys’. The male calls her ‘a lily among brambles’, and then we read, ‘My beloved is mine and I am his, he pastures his flock among the lilies.’ (16) This is, quite simply, the imagery of physically fulfilled love.

There is also the sense that this love is so powerful it is hardly to be desired: ‘O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me! I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field, that you stir not up not awaken love until it please.’ (2:7) This refrain, which comes three times, about love having its own timing which is not to be anticipated, holds the whole book together. Love is both delight and agony. There are some slight suggestions that this is a forbidden passion and that the couple has to conceal it: ‘O that you were like a brother to me, that nursed at my mother’s breast. If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and none would despise me.’ It is possible that the intensity of the sexual longing is magnified because the relationship must be kept secret. The woman both warns against the anticipation of love, yet calls on her beloved to ‘be like a gazelle’, to hurry and be with her.

There is, of course, the suggestion in the text that the man is Solomon and the woman is a Shulammite, an otherwise unknown word. It may simply be that the love lyrics are woven together and presented in this way to commend them by linking them with the name of a great king of Israel. What gives to them their power even today is the way they present experiences which all human beings can recognise and in which all human beings can find delight - just as Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet or Marvell’s ‘To his coy mistress’ give us joy because they present similarly intense experiences with a similar richness of imagery. It is extraordinary that these biblical Songs do not moralise and do not sermonise: they simply offer us a picture of young human life which is at the same time a magnificent display of literary inventiveness and a rich celebration of human sexuality. For a post-Freudian age, which has in many ways become cynical about sex, they capture the freshness of new love, they remind us that love is not a commodity which can be bought and sold in the marketplace. And this is perhaps the point of reading the text as Scripture: it renews our delight at the way the world is, with all its beauty and all its fragility; it refreshes our awareness of the wonder of human love; here is a text which is called the Song of Songs because it is about nothing less than the richness of human experience and delight at the presence of the other. And in love for the other we have the beginnings of love for God.

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