This is first and only time the Song of Songs appears in the Revised Common Lectionary, and it is an odd time. I mean that the reading clearly refers to the first days of spring, while we are in the last days of summer. What can we do with this oddly timed and controversial reading?
Older readers (the early church Fathers and the Medieval mystics) knew exactly what to do with it. Preach it, brother! Origen, for example, wrote a ten-volume commentary on the Song for the preachers of his day. Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 sermons on it, and never got past chapter 2.
But many preachers today echo a Lutheran seminary professor who opened her comments on our reading with the question, “What is this doing in the Bible?” Even if we accept that it has a legitimate place in the canon of Scripture, we are faced with the perennial debate about its meaning. In the New Testament we hear Philip ask the Ethiopian eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” That is the fundamental question for us as we contemplate preaching on the Songs of Songs, this self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Songs” (the literal meaning of “Song of Songs”). What on earth is it about?
Everyone will agree that it is, as one writer delicately put it, “an invitation to intimacy.” But by whom and to whom? For the first 1600 years of the Christian era most everyone was sure that this was all about the intimacy between Christ and his bride, the church, or between Christ and the individual believer. That interpretation was based on a traditional Jewish reading that heard the Song as an intimate dialogue between Yahweh and Israel. In other words, the right way to read this extended poem is allegorically.
In the last several hundred years, since the rise of modern biblical scholarship, teachers and preachers have eschewed that “fanciful reading” and taken the Song much more literally. It is simply a love song about the sensual, even sexual love between a man and a woman. It is about the delights and tensions of romantic and physical love. Its presence in the canon shows that the Bible not only allows but even celebrates the love between a man and a woman. Obviously, this interpretation is a direct challenge to earlier times in the history of the Christian church, when sex was at best tolerated and at worst squelched.
So which interpretation is the right one? The more modern reading seems more natural, more human, and more textual, while the traditional take is more spiritual and more Christ-centered. Who’s to say which is right? And if we can’t say for sure, if, as one medieval scholar put it, the Song is “a lock to which the key is lost,” why should we bother to preach on this reading for this first Sunday of September? Why not just go with the Gospel reading with its clear denunciation of rule-making religion? That will preach!
Well, I invite you to linger here a bit longer for two reasons. First, the Song gives us a much- needed opportunity to reflect on human love and sex in a healthy, unblushing, biblical way. In a world that worships sex or that still treats sex as something dirty (witness the headline on MSN the other day, “Why women find sex more disgusting than men do”), the Song of Songs is a needed corrective. It seems to say that physical love of the most passionate kind is a beautiful gift from God. Thus, this Song shows that the Bible is not anti-sex; rather sex is to celebrated with gratitude to the God who made us male and female. That is a message both Christians and non-Christians need to hear. Indeed, such a reading of the Song can function as kind of pre-evangelism for a world that dismisses Christianity because it is allegedly anti-sex.
That leads me directly to the second reason to stick with this passage today. If we take the more “spiritual” approach to the text, it offers us an unusual and fresh way to call believers to closer, more intimate fellowship with Christ. I am not suggesting an allegorical approach to the text. I don’t think that “Solomon” was thinking about Christ when he wrote this Song, so that everything in the Song “stands for” something in the Christian Gospel. But I do think that this poem about human love can be seen as a parable about the relationship between Christ and his followers. At the very least, there are parallels between this love poem and our walk with Christ that can make the call to discipleship more powerful. That is, even though Solomon didn’t intend to speak of Christ, what he says is a clear illustration of and has a powerful application to the love affair between Christ and us. I think that Song of Songs 2:8-13 can be read that way very naturally.
Let’s start with an examination of the text. It is part of an extended dialogue between two lovers, the male lover and the female beloved. She speaks in the opening verses here. Indeed, it is fascinating that the female voice is the predominant one in the Song. She is not the bashful reticent little woman; she is as interested in this affair as he is. She is in love with her lover and eager to hear his voice, see his face, and feel his touch.
So, she begins with urgency. “Listen! My lover! Look! He comes….” To whom is she speaking? Herself? Her friends, the “daughters of Jerusalem?” Her family with whom she is living (“our wall” in verse 9)? The readers of the Song, us? She is eager to hear her lover’s voice, but before she hears him, she sees him. Verses 8 and 9 describe the approach of the Lover in terms designed to highlight his grace and beauty, agility and strength. He comes like a gazelle or a stag, bounding over the mountains and hills. The coming of her lover excites the young woman.
Now he has arrived; he “stands behind our walls, gazing through the lattice.” Don’t think of a stalker here; think of a mutual meeting of the eyes (“our eyes met across a crowded room”). She is looking too. “Look! There he stands, gazing….” You can almost feel the tension, dare we say sexual tension in the encounter. Their eyes drink in the other.
Then he speaks. Or more accurately, she reports his speech. “My lover spoke and said to me, ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.’” With passionate insistence the lover repeats the invitation at the end of our reading. Get up, leave your home, take a risk, and come with me. Many a young man and woman can relate to such romantic moments in their courtship; even we older folks have fond memories of such anticipation and frisson. This is the stuff of romance.
That is especially true in the spring, the time when “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love (Tennyson).” That is clearly what the Lover here is talking about. Winter is over, that time of inclement weather when we’re shut up in our homes. It’s spring and all nature is aglow with life and blossoms and fruit. So, let’s join them. There may be sexual overtones in this talk about flowers and fruit and doves cooing (“love birds?”). At the very least, the Lover is saying, “This is the time for romance, the time to move on in our relationship to a new level of intimacy.” He is urgent, for he repeats his invitation. “Arise, come, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.”
A sermon on this human dimension of the text will engage the attention of the lovers in your church. It gives the preacher the opportunity to say, “What you are feeling is natural, normal, beautiful!” That’s a good message to send. The Bible is affirming of human love and all the good that goes with it.
Of course, there is also danger in sexual passion, if love overflows the God-given boundary of marriage. The Song of Songs isn’t very specific about that restriction of romance. At most, we have a few references to the Beloved as a bride. And there are hints that this relationship is exclusive. “My lover is mine and I am his (2:16).” But the wider context of Scripture is very clear that sexual fulfillment belongs in the context of a faithful covenantal marriage relationship. So, you’ll have to walk a fine line here between affirming the legitimacy of the desires expressed in the Song and the importance of expressing them in the appropriate place.
And that brings me to the second way of preaching on this text. It gives us an opportunity to invite our listeners to a closer intimacy with Christ. Oh, that we Christians were as passionate about our relationship with Jesus! This angle on the text isn’t really such a stretch. The Old Testament clearly refers to the relationship between Yahweh and Israel as a marriage. And the New Testament picks up on that covenantal theme when it calls the church the Bride of Christ. That’s a textual, theological truth. The practical question is, do we truly love Jesus with the kind of eagerness, anticipation, and passion expressed in our text? Probably not, at least not very often. I think it is legitimate to use this text as an invitation to greater intimacy with “the Lover of our soul.”
Here’s how I would do that. The admonitions of the Beloved in verses 8 and 9 to “listen and look” echo the repeated admonitions of Jesus to be alert to his coming. For example, in the eschatological Mark 13 Jesus tells us about the signs that will signal the end of the age. Verse 26 says, “At this time men will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” Verse 29 adds these words that vibrate with the excitement of the Beloved in our Song: “when you see these things happening, you know that it [he] is near, right at the door.” Our text gives us opportunity to call the church to a renewed expectation of Christ’s coming.
Our snippet from the Song reminds us that he is already here, “standing behind our wall, gazing through the lattice.” We cannot see him, but we can hear his invitation given throughout the Bible. “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” Discipleship is not merely a long obedience in the same direction, aided by the practice of spiritual disciplines. It is also a love relationship in which we should personally draw nearer to our Lover. What was Jesus’ first question to a recently fallen Peter? “Do you love me more than these?” As the old spiritual sings, “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me….”
Finally, our passage stresses that this is the time to make a move, because it is spring. No, not on the secular calendar, but on our spiritual calendar. A traditional Easter hymn proclaims, “Tis the spring of souls today, Christ has burst death’s prison, and from three days’ sleep in death like the sun has risen. All the winter of our sins, long and dark is flying; welcome now the light of Christ, give him praise undying.” Because of his resurrection, it is always spring for us. It is always time for new life, for fresh flowering, and for renewed fruitfulness. The beautiful nature poetry of verses 11-13 can be translated into a spiritual invitation to draw closer to the Lover of our souls and experience renewal.
Don’t deny the purely human message here. In fact, the more we can draw people into the joy and excitement and beauty of romantic and physical love, the more we can press upon them the urgency of growing in our love for Jesus. If sex is grand, how much grander is union with the One who invented it all to begin with!?
As a baby boomer, I can’t read these words of Scripture without hearing a song from my youth entitled “Time of the Season” by the Zombies. Other generations will recall their own ballads that celebrate the wonders of romantic and physical love, but playing this song over your sound system will capture the attention of all ages.
It’s the time of the season
When love runs high.
And this time, give it to me slowly
And let me try with pleasured hands
To take you to the sun to (promised lands)
To show you every one.
It’s the time of the season for loving.
And, it’s the time of the season for loving Christ more.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 2, 2018
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Commentary