The Song of Solomon…a glimpse of God? A sermon for Adel Parish Church, 13th Sunday after Trinity, 2021.
Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13
‘How do I love thee, let me count the ways…’
‘My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June…’
Love poetry anyone? I wonder if you have a favourite?
Since this is the wedding season – I’ve heard a fair amount lately, but one place you don’t expect to find it is in the Bible. Yet there it is…the Song of Solomon, sometimes known as the Song of Songs…you may not even have heard of it…it’s certainly a bit of a surprise when it pops up in the lectionary as it has this week.
So what, you might ask, is a collection of love poems doing in the Bible? The short answer is that we don’t know…especially since they contain no mention of God.
Only eight chapters long, the book is found just before Isaiah. It consists only of poetry…beautiful and in places quite erotic love poetry. There are 4 voices: a woman, a man, a female chorus and a male chorus. There’s been much debate over the centuries as to what it means and why it’s there.
Debate about its history…was it written by Solomon, or about Solomon? Probably not.
Debate about its meaning – is it an allegory, where the characters represent something else? Jewish scholars interpreted it as a dialogue between God and Israel; Christians as between Christ and his church. Whole books have been written explaining exactly, with great certainty, what each line stands for…always a little suspect, since each book gives a different interpretation.
But recent theologians tend to think it’s exactly what it sounds like – secular love poetry which expresses sublimely and graphically the longing and joy of true love between two people.
Which leads us back to the question – what’s it doing in the bible?
There’s no way of knowing for sure – but I tend to think writings have kept their place in our scriptures over the centuries because whatever they were written for, people have found in them truths about themselves, and about God. Perhaps we can find in this book a celebration of human love, and something that enlarges our understanding of God.
Let’s start with the best-known bit
‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm. For love is strong as death and passion fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.’
Used at weddings and funerals, this talks of the strength and enduring nature of love. It tells of love’s ability to span oceans, cope with tragedy and survive the challenges of frailty and age. It reminds us that God’s love reaches even beyond the grave.
But what of the outrageous, exuberant longing and delight expressed elsewhere in the poems? Maybe it gives voice to the longing we sometimes feel for God.
‘I sought him who my soul loves; I sought him but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.’ True love doesn’t always run smooth. Sometimes we feel we are in the wilderness. Perhaps these are words we need now as we look at Afghanistan, or some tragedy we are living through…and God seems absent.
If, as this poetry suggests human love at its best includes periods of feeling bereft, then we shouldn’t think we’ve failed when our relationship with God feels the same.
These poems, however, have two characters, lovers if you like; they’re not about one person’s longings, but shared love. We use them at weddings to say…this kind of overwhelming love between two people is a gift from God…something to be celebrated.
But do we dare to imagine these poems might also reveal something of God, and his love for us?
In today’s reading we heard:
‘My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise my love my fair one and come away; for now the winter is past. Flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.”
What if that’s God speaking to us?
I suspect most of us would struggle a little with putting some of the racier passages into God’s mouth. But, as one of my lecturers once said, ‘anything we say about God will be wrong’. Human words are never enough – but scripture is holy because it gives us glimpses of God.
The stories of the lost sheep and the prodigal son teach us about God’s willingness to search and find us, to welcome us home. Does this book teach us that God doesn’t just love us, but that he delights in us? If we take the Song of Solomon seriously as part of scripture then this seems a distinct possibility.
Wedding couples promise, ‘all that I am I give to you’. So we talk about love of the whole person…the good bits and the not so good. True love isn’t blind to faults…it doesn’t say, ‘this person is perfect’. But it does say, ‘this person is perfect for me.’
Dare we imagine that’s how God looks on us? We know we’re far from perfect…and if we forget, the world is only too ready to tell us where we fall short. Perhaps this book allows us to glimpse ourselves not as perfect, but as perfect for someone…wanted, sought after…perfect for God…
Surely, we think, God can’t love us in that way? Surely God knows all our faults. But perhaps it’s only God who can. Because God can see in us the people he created us to be…the people we can become through Christ…
The world is a scary, unsettling place at the moment; we’re weary and uncertain still of what the coming months hold. I think we need this book and its daring possibility that God longs for us and delights in us. I think we need to hear those words ‘Arise my love my fair one and come away’, as spoken by God, to us, in love.