(Note: I wrote this over a year-and-a-half ago. Since the Song of Solomon makes it’s nearly only appearence in the Revised Common Lectionary this Sunday, I thought it would be good to repost it. The “Arise, my love, my fair one,” part is actually my favorite passage in the whole book, and, yes, the Song of Solomon is one of my favorite books, even still.)
A few weeks ago my Facebook was a hotbed of controversy. Normally, I like to keep my page fairly tame, using my statuses to extol the praises of bacon or have witty little comments that produce a chortle or two (if I am lucky). All this changed when I posted this missive:
Would someone help me free Song of Solomon from the hands of the biblical Literalists? It’s one of my favorite books of the Bible and I’d like to not feel like a pervert when I say that. Would someone kindly set them down and tell them it’s not JUST about sex (Is anything EVER just about sex)?
Everything in those lines is absolutely true. The Song of Solomon is one of my favorite books (after The Psalter and the Gospel of John) and I feel like a dirty little pervert every time I say that. When I share this, I feel as if everyone’s inner-Freud comes out and you all start wondering what kind of sexual deviancy I’ve been suppressing these the last twenty-five years. But the reason why I love it so is not because of its sexual exploration, but because it is traditionally understood as a metaphor for the love between God and His people. Yes, Song of Solomon is about sex, but – as I wrote – it is not just about sex.
Well it would seem as if one of my Protestant friends saw this and put out an APB regarding my status to all their Protestant friends: “Someone is denying the literal interpretation of the Bible! He must be squashed!” They stoked the fires and got all their proof-texts in a row and were prepared for the showdown with the weird little Episcopalian who thinks it is all an allegory. Within two hours, I was accused of everything from “debasing” and “over-spiritualizing” scripture (at the same time, oddly). By the end of the conversation, I was called a prude of the highest Victorian style and was held personally responsible for every Christian relationship that did not have a happy marriage bed – even that was a bit hyperbolic for me and I like hyperbole!
The deeper issue of how to read the Bible bubbled underneath all that name calling. All steeming from how important original authorial intent is. For an example, JJJA wrote about my allegorical understanding: “ . . . it’s reading your own view into the text when the author did not intend it to be that way which is clear by the way the Jews treat THEIR book. it is not OUR book. it is theirs.” [sic] Or the Rev. MS shared this thought by writing: “. . . our goal in Song of Songs should be to find the author’s intended meaning, not the spiritualized meaning for me. If God is truly the author inspiring the text, than we miss God’s message for our lives by adding an extra layer to the text.”
This is a very common way to read Scripture (and not necessarily a bad one). If I understand it, it is as if you treat Holy Writ as a Rubix Cube, where all the colors are askew. Only by in-depth study of the cultural context, the intricacies of the original language and authorial intent will get each side aright. Through this complex puzzle and its even more complex unwinding, meaning is discovered, as if it had been buried there by God underneath all those multiple colors all along. It is generally very clear-cut and dry, just like the uniform sides of a solved Rubix Cube. This is the Academic approach to the Bible, so if I were writing a paper on The Song of Solomon, I would treat it like thus.
This approach, however, is fairly new to the Church (maybe the last two hundred years or so). If you read any of the commentaries of the Church Fathers, the Sermons of Ss. Augustine or John Chysostom, they do not treat Scripture as a puzzle. For example, St. John Chrysostom interprets the parable of the wise and foolish virgins who need more oil for their lamps, not as the second coming of Christ, but as the Church being prepared to meet Christ in service to the poor.
Scripture doesn’t treat itself in the Rubix Cube fashion, either: take Matthew’s use of the Isaiah’s verse of a virgin shall conceive. In the context of Isaiah, it is not a messianic prophecy, but Matthew still treats it that way, and thanks be to God that he does! And, while there is much benefit in Greek and Hebrew word studies – I took several years of Koine Greek in college – not every word study needs to uncover some hidden esoteric message from God in the way the author uses “the”. Would my friends look down upon Ss. Matthew and Chrysostom because they did not treat scripture like a Rubix cube or because they didn’t do a complex word study on the word virgin to find its true authorial intent? Maybe. I’m not sure.
I cannot read Song of Solomon like a Jew or even an academic, for I am neither but I can read it like a Christian. More specifically, I read it like a Christian of the Anglican persuasion. We have no Magisterium, no Confession, nor lengthy list of sola’s to bind us together, save only The Book of Common Prayer and the episcopacy – for our common expression of worship is our unity. Because this common worship is where I meet Our Lord on a day-to-day basis, I can’t help but listen and understand scripture in much the same way. I read Song of Solomon not as a Jew or an academic, but as a Christian who is interested in following after Christ into a deeper union with God. I read it as a Christian who treats it as an act of worship.
So, when come to passages like this, I can’t help but read it in light of the resurrection and the Eucharist:
My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, 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 of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. (2:10-13)
“Arise and come to new life”, says our seducing Lord to our whoring souls, “Come away with me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. For the time of salvation, the time of eternal-spring is here and is coming upon us.” These are the words of the lover-of-our-souls, who desires us more than anything.
I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. (5:2-7)
Are there clearly sexual overtones in this passage? You betcha. But how far away is “my bowels were moved for him” from Wesley’s strangely-warmed heart or the ecstasy of St. Teresa? Not very much. In this passage, can you hear Our Lord Jesus Christ whispering through the hole in the door, “Come and follow me.” This is the God who meets us for but a brief moment, then retires and we must spend the rest of our life chasing after him, often being wounded by those who do not comprehend our chase. And these are just two examples!
Is the Song of of Solomon about Sex? Yes, of course it is. But, it is about so much more – if you read it like a Christian. Blessed are you when you read scripture in such a way, but doubly blessed are you when you read it and apply its precepts and living words to your life. For we are to be lovers of God and our fellow man first and foremost – not necessarily a pedants of scripture or dogged protectors of correct interpretation. We are to worship him in all things and follow after him.
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. (2:3-4)