Song of Songs 2.8–13
Mark 7.1–8, 14–15, 21–23
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. — Rabbi Akiba (in Harvey Cox and Stephanie Paulsell, Lamentations and the Song of Songs, Kindle Ed’n, p.189)
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. — Where there is love and affection, there God is.
To be in love is to live beyond the boundaries of the self and to enter a realm of sheer delight, in which the human and the divine can merge. Human love both allows us to celebrate God through our bodies and educates us in loving and being loved. — Julia M. O’Brien, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol.4, loc.333
This is how the Song of Songs begins:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
I was around fifteen years old, a new Christian and a keen reader of the scriptures. When I first started reading the Song of Songs, I was mortified that something so—well, arousing—should be in the Bible. So I stopped reading this book. Possibly, I stopped around 1.13:
My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh
that lies between my breasts.
My fifteen year old self was trying hard to be good. He was disturbed that there is an erotic poem slap bang in the middle of the Bible.
He would have been quite relieved to find that the Song of Songs only appears twice in our three-year lectionary, and may easily be ignored.
Since it comes up so rarely, you may not have heard today’s snippet from the Song of Songs in church for a long time—if ever.
But you know, in past ages this little book was much better known.
In the twelfth century, the mystic theologian Bernard of Clairvaux preached eighty six sermons on the Song of Songs; and Bernard barely got through chapter two. A medieval Spanish rabbi, Ezra ben Solomon, believed the Song of Songs to be the greatest of songs because God sings it every single day. Jewish people still sing it today on the Sabbath at Passover time.
How come people like Bernard and Ezra, and later the Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila, were so attached to the Song of Songs?
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
Teresa and Bernard loved those opening words! Why? Neither of them had partners, they were a celibate abbott and nun. What Teresa and Bernard did see was an expression of desire in these words: ‘Let [God] kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.’ This desire was both the soul’s desire for God and God’s desire for the soul.
The Song of Songs is a love poem between a man and a woman. But if we read it on more than one level, it also becomes the story of mutual longing and desire, of the longing of God, of Jesus, for us, and our answering longing for God, for Jesus.
Both ways of reading it are correct. My fifteen year old self was quite right to see this as erotic poetry, but I couldn’t make the connection with the longing for God—a longing that I did in fact feel.
So we have slap bang in the middle of the Bible this erotic poem. What does that tell us?
God loves bodies.
The Song of Songs celebrates the body. It’s about kissing, touching, making love. It celebrates the beauty of eyes, hair, teeth, lips, necks, cheeks, thighs and breasts.
The Song celebrates all creation, describing the body of the beloved in ways that we may think are a little quaint: ‘your eyes are doves’ (1.15); ‘my beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag’ (2.9); ‘your hair is like a flock of goats…your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes…your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate’ (see 4.1–3).
A contemporary lover may get more mileage from ‘your lips distil nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue’ (4.11). And ‘you are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you’ (4.7) is a truly timeless ‘sweet nothing’.
The Song of Songs says that God meant what he said at the creation: everything he had made is good.
God is love
Remember, Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon believed that God sings the Song of Songs every single day.
What kind of God does that?
A God who rejoices in love and who wants to see love multiply.
The Song of Songs doesn’t say ‘God is love’, we wait until the New Testament to hear that. But surely this is part of the scriptural basis for 1 John 4.16 to simply say, ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’. And yet more:
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4.7b–8)
This love extends beyond the woman and man in the Song. It includes ‘everyone who loves’, straight or LGBTIQ.
And the love of the two people in the Song is a love of two equals. Neither is elevated above the other; each declares their love for the other in total freedom and abandonment.
Desire can be a dangerous thing. It may lead to exploitive relationships. Desire too often makes us careless of others. But here in the Song of Songs, we have an equal desire between two people.
Perhaps Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon wasn’t so silly. Maybe God does sing the Song of Songs every day.
What then does the Song of Songs say about our relationship with God?
Some people say it has nothing to do with it. Back in the 1800s, Elizabeth Cody Stanton wrote that it is ‘merely a love poem’. The ‘most rational view’ to take of the Song, she argued, is as an erotic poem addressed by a king to his harem of available women.
You know, when I read words like ‘merely’ and ‘most rational view’ I get a little suspicious.
This poetry is not ‘rational’!
Love is not ‘mere’!
Let’s not restrict the love that the Song celebrates. It praises the love of one person for another, but love joins us to God—so why shouldn’t it rejoice in God’s love also?
So, despite the ‘rational’ view I just quoted, the Song of Songs tells us that
God desires us, even more than we desire God
‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth’!
Let’s go back to our First Reading for today, and think of it being about God, or about Jesus if you prefer:
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.…’
Can you see God in the Beloved one who desires our love in return?
When I was fifteen, I couldn’t even imagine that God could desire me. I saw God as a rule-giver. If I kept the rules, I’d be a good Christian.
Does that sound familiar?
It reminds me of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees in Mark 7. They asked the disciples,
Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?
They were upset that the disciples weren’t washing their hands before they ate. We know that’s a good thing, because it’s hygienic. But no one knew about hygiene then; washing hands was a way to please God. It made the outside clean, but not the inside.
A god who needs to be pleased like this is not a God who desires her people. It’s not even a god who is capable of desire. It’s an idol that wants to exert power over people and tell them they are unworthy. It’s an idol who says Do this exactly right, and I won’t condemn you.
It’s a god for immature people; and at fifteen, I was of course still quite immature.
The Song of Songs presents a God of great desire for us, a God who wants us to desire God in return, a God who says to you, to me
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.…
let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely. (2.13b, 14b)
Can you see God as the Beloved one who desires our love in return? Will you give yourself to this God?
Preached at West End Uniting Church, 2 September 2018