This is the only passage from the Song of Songs that the church reads on Sundays. That is too bad, because the more I found out about it, the more interesting it became.
The Song of Songs is a love poem between two lovers, and over history, many people didn’t think it belonged in the Bible. It is too erotic. There is no plot, just these lovely poems between a man and a woman, who aren’t even necessarily married. He calls her ‘his bride’, but he also calls her ‘his sister’. All we know for sure is that these two people were madly, passionately, in love. It is the only text in scripture where sexuality isn’t tied into the conception of children. It is love and delight for it’s own sake, and the characters aren’t necessarily married. That adds another layer of interest around the restrictions the church has traditionally placed around sexuality.
For literally thousands of years, Jewish people have interpreted this as a way of showing the love God shares with the people of Israel. Then Christians came along, and thought it showed the love God shares with the Christian Church, which has been referred to, (also for thousands of years), as “The Bride of Christ.” Really, both faiths are saying the same thing. It is a love poem between God and the people in a love relationship with God.
It shows the love of two people who are longing for each other. “The voice of my beloved! Look, here he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. Look, there he stands, gazing in at the windows. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise my love, my beautiful one, arise and come away with me.”
There was an ancient practice of singing these songs in drinking halls, but the Talmud, the teachings of the rabbis, argued against using the scriptures for drinking songs. (Tanakh 1566), As different as this book is, it has traditionally been considered very important. In the Middle Ages, there were more Christian commentaries written about the Song of Songs than any other book in the Bible A great rabbi, teacher and mystic, Rabbi Akiba, (who lived between AD 50 & 135) wrote, “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” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5)
After the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and he wrote, “Though the visible Temple be destroyed, through the medium of the Song, it is still possible for those who pray to enter the presence of ‘the King.’
I have a book of the Jewish Scriptures in English, that is a Jewish study Bible rather than a Christian study Bible. It says “In the tradition of the rabbi’s, the Song of Songs narrates the words that God and Israel spoke to each other at the Red Sea and at Mount Sinai.” They pray parts of this at Passover and when they welcome the Sabbath Day. This erotic love poem is how the Jewish fathers saw God and Israel speaking to one another. And Christians say the same thing is true of God and the Christian Church, which is us. Listen!
You have captured my heart, my own, my bride, you have captured my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love, my own, by bride! How much more delightful your love than wine, your ointments more fragrant than any spice. Sweetness drops from your lips, o bride, honey and milk are under your tongue! (4: 9-11)
This is how God is talking to them! This is the relationship between God, and people of faith. Wow! We are pretty comfortable with the image of God as a parent, or of Jesus as a hero and friend, but what about this intimacy with God?
Later in the Song, the woman says, “Love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave. It’s flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.” (8:6) The phrase ‘a raging flame,’ is literally translated from Hebrew as ‘a flame of God.’ The love that they share, that We share, is part of God, a flame of God. Let’s hear it again: “Love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave. It’s flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.”
The whole book is full of the longing of each person for the other. If this Is the relationship between God and us, that’s pretty amazing. Does God long for us that much? Do we long for God like that? Yes, we do. We already do. But it might be disguised.
I was visiting with a man who never goes to church, but he loves being out by himself in nature. He told me how he doesn’t have any desire to go to church, or to belong to church, so he can’t figure out why sometimes when he is sitting watching the sun go down, on a lake or in the forest, he feels a longing for religion, even though he doesn’t believe in religion. I know why. He isn’t longing for religion, he is longing for God.
And longing for God doesn’t mean that you don’t know God, it means you DO know God. When you long for someone, it’s because you are already, in some sense, in love with them. You might long for a son or daughter, or the visit of a good friend, and you aren’t ‘in love’ with them in the same way that you would be ‘in love’ with a partner, but you still are longing out of love for them. That’s how we long for God. And longing for God means we already know God; we are longing for more.
I was with a good friend once, and we were talking about prayer. She is older and I see her as a very wise woman of faith. When I mentioned that I had a hard time sitting still praying or meditating for some time every day, she said, “Kathy, it is imperative that you spend some time with God. It is like how you need to spend time with Carol. You have that intimacy. God is that intimate. You need to spend time in that intimacy with God.”
We can spend time with God in different ways. Sitting quietly can be greatly helpful, and while I might do that in prayer or contemplation, someone else might connect with God sitting in their deer stand watching the sunrise, or being outside at their cabin or in their garden. It might be sitting in a crowd at the Lynx game, watching a parade go by, or seeing a soldier come home after deployment. We experience God when we are touched by tenderness.
Funerals, births, weddings, communion, when we are vulnerable and embraced by kindness, or when we help someone else resolve an issue that troubles them; these are all experiences of God. Any time that we say we are ‘touched’ by something, that is God. God is in our lives all the time, but we don’t necessarily think of these moments, moments of tenderness, or intimacy as being moments when we are touched by God. But we are.
An ancient Jewish tradition is to always make love on the Sabbath day. That is one of the most holy ways that you can experience intimacy with God – when you experience that intimacy with the one you love most. That is what the Song of Songs celebrates.
But we experience that intimacy and love in so many other ways. When someone goes to the hospital, and the other is at home, he or she can’t wait to have that person back again. When the person we love dies, and even though we accept life, we don’t ever completely recover from that grief, that kind of love is God, too. When we long for someone we love, or when we celebrate someone we love, the Song of Songs tells us it isn’t just a Symbol of God’s love, it Is God’s love.
“Love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave. It’s flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.” And we know, in Hebrew, that flame of God is the Love of God. It is with us all the time, and whether we are celebrating, mourning, or hoping for a special love in our lives, it is all God.