How many of you are already giggling because the scripture reading today is from the Song of Songs? This book has been making baptists blush for 400 years. We might hear this read at weddings every now and then… not weddings in churches, maybe parks with sage burning and bongos playing, but not in places we think of as HOLY. This is the only passage from the Song of Songs that is in the lectionary. We basically skip over this book. We’re unsure of its value; mainly because we’re uncomfortable with its content. After all, it never even mentions God.
Stephanie Paulsell says at the first wedding she ever officiated the couple picked out a passage from the Song of Songs to be read. At the rehearsal the night before the wedding the bridal party gathered and got in their places. And one of the one of the groom’s sisters began reading from the scripture passage they had picked out from the Song: “My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand.” A groomsman began elbowing the groom. “His eyes are like doves beside springs of water, bathed in milk, fitly set.” That drew laughs from the family in the front row. The groom’s sister continued reading, “His cheeks are like beds of spices… his lips are lilies, his arms rounded gold.” But, now even the sister reading was struggling to choke back her laughter. And by the time she got to: “His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold,” everyone was laughing so hard they had to abandon the passage altogether and went back to the safer, “Set me as a seal upon your heart” (Song 8:6).”
This is a book we’re quick to write off. Until modern times, this book was actually central to the devotional lives of Jews and Christians. In the first century Rabbi Akiba argued that the Song of Songs should be in the Bible because he said, “All scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Songs and barely got past chapter 2. Early Christians read the Song as Christ speaking to his bride, the church.
Meanwhile, we don’t even know what to call this book. In some bibles it’s “Song of Songs” and in others “Song of Solomon”. The name comes from the superscription at the start— It reads the “Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s”. Almost no serious scholar believes it to be written by Solomon. Some say maybe it was attributed to him because the Hebrew scriptures record him as a great poet; or maybe because he had so many wives. But, I like what Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon says when he translates Solomon from the Hebrew and points to the word itself as a hint for the origin and purpose of this song. Solomon is from the Hebrew verb שלם (shalem), to be or make whole or complete. It is God that does this work of Shalem— of making whole. Therefore this transcription “The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s” means that the Song is God’s song; a song God sings everyday.
Modern interpreters chafe at the allegorical representations of God pursuing God’s people like a lover pursues her beloved. We want to read it for what it says. We don’t want to over spiritualize this book — make it so heavenly that it isn’t any earthly good. Modern interpreters remind us the Song is what it says— this book is a celebration of physical love. Eros. Sexuality. Pleasure. That kind of love. Not just the kind of love that’s safe to talk about in church.
The poetry of the verses we read today expresses the kind of love we don’t often talk about in church. Church is where we learn things about God… we fill our minds… and pray God opens our hearts… but the God behind the Song is a God who places longing in our loins… a God who creates a world meant to be enjoyed… a God who is the love beyond the longing.
Professor Ellen Davis defines the phrase “Fear of the Lord” in a helpful way which I think has a connection to the Song, even though that phrase never appears in this book. She says some translate “fear of the Lord” as reverence for God— Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. But, she says by avoiding the word ‘fear’, we take the edge off the point the biblical writers are making. This is about a ‘gut’ response to God. It’s an unmistakable feeling in our stomachs, tingle of our scalp, breathlessness when we run up against the power of God.
“Aching stomach, tingling scalp, breathlessness.” These are symptoms of fear but also sometimes the manifestations of love’s presence. The romantic love of the Song is the type that is embodied in this kind of guttural reaction. What if we accepted the modern critique of the Song— that we must not turn away from the physicality of these verses— but through these words hear the Song also as God’s song to us. Bernard interpreted the wall in v.9 as the human body taken on by God in the incarnation and the lattices and windows as the senses and feelings of the human body— as if Christ’s body opened a window for God into human experience to learn what we go through. Through this God learns of mercy.
This kind of aching love is universal to human experience. No matter what’s happening in the world, people still fall in love.
Relationships grow and blossom in pandemics, protests, and wars. It doesn’t matter what’s happening, love marches on. The love described in the Song is in someway eschatological— a foretaste of what God dreams for us. Because it’s an expression of the love of God for creation.
This is 4th of July weekend so— Is there anyone in our history, any historical figure more untouched by passion than George Washington?
We think of him as the quintessential stoic. But, we actually have a few surviving love letters from our first president. In the midst of the revolutionary war on June 23rd 1775 he wrote to Martha, “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change… your entire, George Washington.” OK, so it’s not the Song of Songs, and it’s a little weird that he signed his full name in a love letter to his wife… But, still.
There’s an old story about how sailors on a submarine in the U.S.
Navy in the 1970s communicated with their families. Family members were able to send messages to the sailors, but the messages could be no more than eight words long. A Bible verse, though, counted as only one word, so the loved ones on shore filled their messages with them. They say all the wives and girlfriends loved the Song of Songs. So they would send messages like this: SoS 1:2—and the beloved, deep below the surface of the ocean, would look up Song of Songs 1:2 in the Bible. Which reads: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”. Or SoS 4:7—“you are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” Or SoS 8:7, a message to a beloved submerged beneath miles of water—“many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”
Those women used those sacred words as a secret message to their love far below the waters. Imagine the sailors receiving these messages and scurrying, excitedly to their bibles. It was these ancient words of scripture that connected them and preserved them through the separation. The love of their love spoke through these words from the Song that for so long have been understood as a kind of secret message of love to us from God. What if God really did create us because God wanted to delight in us… and us to delight in each other?
The Jesuit priest and author Greg Boyle says that from the time his father was diagnosed with a brain tumor until his death, he lasted about 30 days. He was in the hospital every now and then over that time. One time Greg picked up his mom to take her to the hospital while his dad was staying overnight there. As he waited in the driveway she emerged from the house with both arms full of stuff— magazines, bags, and a pillow with a flowery case. Greg said with a certain amount of snark, “You know, the hospital provides pillows.” She made a face and sighed heavily. “Oh gosh . . . your father . . . he asked for a pillow from MY side of the bed.” They both eye-rolled their way into the car. At the hospital, his folks greet each other in their customary way—the two-peck kiss. His mom stepped into the restroom, and Greg was at the window of the room, just north of the head of the bed. He’s about to make small talk about the view, but just then he turns to see that his father has placed the flowery pillow over his face. He breathes in so deeply and then exhales, as he places the pillow behind his head. For the rest of the morning, Greg would catch him turning and savoring again the scent of the woman whose bed he’s shared for nearly half a century. Greg writes, “We breathe in the spirit that delights in our being—the fragrance of it. And it works on us. Then we exhale (for that breath has to go somewhere) —to breathe into the world this same spirit of delight, confident that this is God’s only agenda.” This is why the Song is in the bible — to remind us of the way God delights in us… and to inspire delighting in each other in ways where mutual love blossoms.
If we understood the capability of all people to love in this way, could we then gain better appreciation for people who are different from us? Could that build the empathy necessary to live in diverse communities like ours? They say the more diverse a community the less likely people are to engage as good neighbors. But, perhaps with the Song of Songs as a part of our devotional life we might become better neighbors by understanding the passionate love of God that chooses creation… that pursues humanity… not just us… not just people that look like me… not just people whose families look like mine. Maybe with the Song shaping our imaginative ethic, we can truly begin seeing the world through the eyes of love instead of they eyes of law. Humans create laws. But, love has much older origins.
It’s been said that we read the gospels through the lens of St. Paul— baptists may be the worst perpetrators of this. We read the gospels through the lens of rules and dogma. But, what if we read the gospels through the lens of the Song? What if we saw it as the holies of holies? What if we understood the gospel as the news that God leaps over mountains, bounding over hills like a gazelle to come to us… this gospel news becomes not so much a list of our shortcomings as a guttural response to the love at the heart of life.
When we first moved to San Antonio Cameron and I adopted a two year old chocolate lab; we named her Amy.
Amy had a rough life up to that point. The adoption agency says she was confined to a small cage and left there for long periods of time, basically abandoned. When we got her she was sick and weak. When she first came to us she could barely make it up the stairs. And she was extremely shy and cautious. She kept to herself. But, the second day we had her we left the front door cracked open and he saw her chance at freedom. She bolted out the door. Cameron saw her go and she chased after her finally catching her about a block away. She hugged Amy and led her back home. She never ran again. She became Cameron’s shadow, following her everywhere in the house. Something changed for Amy. She realized that she was chosen. That she was loved. That’s the kind of love Song of Songs is talking about. Love that chases us down the road. Pursues us, like that Father running down the driveway to embrace his prodigal son.
Henri Nouwen urges us that, “We must hold on to the truth that we are God’s chosen ones…When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being [God’s] chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness.” This is the gospel message: My beloved speaks, Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me.
 Graphic 1 - Ellen Davis
 Graphic 2 - George Washington
 Graphic 3 - Amy the Dog w/ Finley and Zetta