Everyone likes love songs. They fill the radio waves throughout the day. I can still remember enjoying the crooning voice of Lionel Richie singing "Hello, is it me you're looking for?" in my late teens. There is something deeply profound about the desire and yearning of one person for another. We call it love.
The Bible contains many diverse types of literature, including poems, prophecies, narratives and of course, songs. The book of Psalms is literally a psalter, or collection of songs, expressing the full range of emotions of the human heart. But then we have that small little book at the end of the Wisdom Literature section called Song of Songs. That title means it is being declared as the best song of all. It's a bit like the phrase "holy of holies", which means the holiest of all holy places. This is the greatest song of all songs – and it's a love song, a sensual and erotic one at that!
That's pretty remarkable. This book is also unusual in the Bible in that it mentions God indirectly perhaps once (8:6), and most likely not at all. It also does not refer to the main Israelite traditions of the Exodus, the Torah (law), the covenants or the ancestors. Its central concern is about sexual love. It joyfully celebrates physical love and a couple's committed relationship. That should serve as a rebuke to Christians who find no place for love and sex in their Christian thinking and living.
Of course, conservative interpreters throughout the centuries found all of this a bit too embarrassing so resorted to an allegorical approach, rather than a literal one, declaring this as a love story between God and his people. One interpreter even declared the woman's breasts as representing the Old and New Testaments! Now there is some creative, mental gymnastics.
Before you start reading Song of Songs, maybe for the first time, here are a few pointers:
- The date of composition is uncertain and the author of this song in unknown. Solomon has been thought to be the author by some but the inclusion of his name (most references are in the 3rd person and he never speaks in the text) could refer more to sponsorship or dedication. His reputation for womanising does not harmonise with the apparently exclusive devotion of the lovers in this text. Some have even proposed a female author, but it remains impossible to prove.
- There are two main characters in the text – one man and one woman. There is no narrator intruding into the conversations. These persons are in love and the dialogue is charged with emotional content.
- This is love poetry. The sequence of lyric poems form a series of episodes with some plot and theme development, but there are some abrupt shifts of scene and audience, which can be confusing and yet engaging at the same time. Poetic images abound – with heaps of simile and metaphor (many of them mixed!). There is much imaginative activity here. And the language can seem quite foreign to Western ears. There is military language (bodily parts being likened to towers, troops, banners, shields and warriors), architectural imagery (a house and a wall), family images, natural and agricultural imagery, wild animal images (the gazelle, stag, lion and leopard), specific geographical imagery (places as diverse as Kedar, Mount Gilead, Lebanon, En Gedi, Damascus, Hernon and Jerusalem), landscape elements (mountain, valley, garden, vineyard, orchard, pools and fountain), spices and incense, metals and gems, and frequent references to wine, suggesting the intoxicating nature of this love relationship. The regular blurring of a distinction between image and association (for example, shifting between an actual landscape and the landscape of the human body) only heighten the growing emotion of this love poem.
- This book promotes a positive view of human sexuality, as a normal part of God's "very good" creation. These lovers express their desire for each other and speak of delight in each other's presence. Together or apart, each admires the other's body. As originally portrayed in the garden of Eden, they are "naked and unashamed" before God and each other (Genesis 2:25). They issue repeated invitations to each other. They are single-minded in their devotion to each other and their relationship. Most remarkable is the fact that there is no mention of procreation, showing that child-bearing is not the only legitimate aim of sexual relations.
- There is a mutuality in this love relationship. In fact, this book is also unusual in the biblical library, in that it gives the central place to a woman's voice unmediated by a narrator. She is the speaker in the majority of verses and has the first and last words. There is no hint of hierarchy or patriarchy here. The man and woman are equals – in value and personhood. In fact, there is an interesting reversal to the Eden statement "your desire shall be for your husband" (Genesis 3:16) with the woman's declaration, "I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me" (7:10). [It is disappointing that some English translations have chosen the words "Lover" and "Beloved" to represent the male and female characters in this love poem since this implies male initiative and female passivity, which is exactly the opposite of what this love poem portrays.]
- There is a time for love to awaken. The woman in this love poem speaks to "the daughters of Jerusalem" several times, repeating this advice/warning: "Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires" (2:7; 3:5; 5:8; 8:4). Love requires restraint at times, saying 'no' to the immediate in order to say 'yes' to what may be even better in the longer term. Yes, waiting and delayed gratification are part of a maturing love. Don't be too hasty in love.
- Human love is a picture of the love God has for his people. The apostle Paul likens marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Therefore, we can include allegorical readings with literal readings of the Song of Songs, though it is not the sole purpose of the book.
Enjoy your reading! I love the Message Bible translation.
Part 2 tomorrow …