Song of Songs 1:2-4; 8:5-7
by Daniel Harrell
Way back before Lent and Easter when I first began this series on the life and times of King Solomon, I got a request to add Song of Solomon to the rotation. The underlying hint, I think, was that if I wanted to make King Solomon interesting, i should put in a sermon from this book of the Bible. If you’ve ever read Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs as it is also known, you know it to be a racy romp in the Biblical hay, so to speak, suggestively piled high with pomegranates, leaping twin fauns, and palm trees to shimmy. Centuries of Christians, concerned about the erotic imagery, have chosen to interpret the song allegorically, claiming its amorous overtones are actually a song of songs about the spiritual relationship between the King of kings, Jesus Christ, and his Church—though I’m not sure how this helps things. The 12th century French monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, understood Song of Songs this way, and dedicated eight sermons to one verse where the enraptured young beloved (meaning the church) exclaims of Jesus, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for his love is better than wine.” Eight sermons. All about kissing.
I remember my first kiss. I was in sixth grade and Josie Fletcher invited a bunch of us kids over to her house for a little spin the bottle. This being a wholesome church, I’m taking for granted that most of you aren’t familiar with this spicy pubescent party game. I know I wasn’t. All I know is that suddenly I was sitting in this circle of hyper kids jacked up on candy bars taking turns whirling a Coke bottle. Whenever it stopped, the spinner started smooching whomever the bottle pointed toward. It was pretty disgusting. I tried to excuse myself (faking a cold and saving face), but the peer pressure made it abundantly clear that swapping salvia with a random classmate was my pathway to elementary school panache. So I caved. When my turn came, I gave the bottle a pretty vicious spin, hoping to override the inertia and avoid the inevitable. The bottle stopped on Jennifer Blake. I could have done worse. Jennifer was cute. But she was also a seventh grader which meant that she knew stuff. She asked what kind of kiss I preferred. I thought, “What kind? I didn’t know there were kinds!” She offered two. Regular and then something of a more Parisian variety. Having learned interesting things about France from Social Studies class—I opted for the latter type but braced myself to be completely grossed out. Instead, I resurfaced from Jennifer’s French lesson all loopy. Sacre bleu! Il était fantastique!
Scholars will insist that Song of Solomon would have never have been interpreted figuratively had it not been in the Bible—that dusty old book where everything sensual is presumed to be sinful. Some scholars read Song of Solomon as a three-character drama between the King, a concubine and a commoner—the commoner being the true love shepherd of the girl Solomon chases. Solomon lavishes the young girl with luxuries and riches, wooing her to join his thousandfold harem. But the young girl demurs, holding fast to her common shepherd, proving once again that money can’t buy me love. It’s an interpretation that reads a lot into the text. For simplicity’s sake, I suggest we go with a Southern Baptist interpretation. Baptist seminary professor Duane Garrett say Solomon’s song is just a song about sex.
With 700 wives and 300 concubines, King Solomon did have a lot to sing about. You’ll remember from last Sunday how the King “clung to them all in love.” The problem, interestingly, was less about the number than about where they came from. 1 Kings reported how, “King Solomon loved many foreign women.” Polygamy could be tolerated, but not intermarriage. Foreign women weren’t intrinsically more rotten than Israelite women, nor was Israel forbidden general contact with non-chosen people. On the contrary, generous treatment of aliens and strangers was paramount in the Hebrew ethic of charity toward others. The problem was not that the foreign women were more sinful or that God was prejudiced, but that foreign women brought with them foreign religion; idol worship which threatened to lure their Israelite lovers away from faithful devotion to God.
Contemporary Christians still worry whenever the faithful fall in love with foreigners to the faith. We cite the New Testament admonition to “not be yoked together with unbelievers,” an image borrowed from Deuteronomy about how life works better when you have two oxen pulling a plow, rather than, say, an ox and an ass. Keeping faith is tough enough when a spouse shares your beliefs. Not that missionary marriages don’t succeed sometimes, they do, but at least in our culture that’s a one-on-one proposition. With 700 idolatrous wives, Solomon never stood a chance. 1 Kings says his wives “turned away Solomon’s heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David.”
So why seven-hundred foreign wives? In accordance with ancient Near Eastern diplomacy, it may have been that Solomon sought to ratify international treaties with matrimony, as he had done earlier with the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter. On the other hand, given Solomon’s penchant for extravagant exhibitionism—1 Kings goes on and on about the King’s vast holdings and houses—it may be that Solomon was just showing off. What good is being the smartest, richest and most potent potentate on the planet if nobody notices?
Still, we read that Solomon truly loved his wives. Add 300 concubines and I’d suggest we have King a bit starved for affection. And he was romantic too. Whatever the motivation, Solomon pens a legendary love poem here, celebrating the majestic power and perils of sexual intimacy, a passionately focused force that burns at the core of all human experience: “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens adore you. Draw me after you, let us make haste. Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers!”
Some will say that sexual love has no place in church—especially on a Sunday when the kids are in the room. Better to leave these things outside; leave it to Hollywood, to comedians, to the Internet. Ours is a libido-beset society where sex gets reduced solely to the physical act, shed of its emotional, relational and even spiritual significance—a nonjudgmental and consumerist society where all consensual sex regardless of how or with whom remain equally viable, negotiable and disposable; merely another mode of self-gratification bereft of the covenantal beauty for which sex was intended.
A construction superintendent friend had recently broken up with a girlfriend and was feeling pretty depressed as he walked home from work one day. A woman coming the other way, noticed my friend from afar and apparently attracted to the brooding type, impetuously jotted her name and number on a slip of paper, and slipped it into his coat pocket as he passed by. When he got home and unexpectedly discovered the note, he took it as a sign from above and gave the woman a call before he could think better of it. My friend and this woman went out a couple of times and surprisingly hit it off. Things were going so well, that on the third date, they were over at her place when she excused herself, telling my friend, with a wink, that she’d be right back.
“Wait a minute,” he said, “I can’t do that.” “Oh,” she replied, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” which these days sounds like the perfect lead-in for one of those incessant commercials about men stuck in the mud with horses or who fix entire factories single-handed. “No, no,” he said, it’s not that I can’t, or even that I don’t want to. It’s just that I want something else more. And with that he went on, sheepishly, to tell her about his faith in Jesus and how that faith celebrated sex as the covenant mark of marriage, about the bond of two people as one flesh before God; about how this bond reflected the loving inter-relatedness of the Trinity as well as the relationship between Christ and His Church, Bridegroom and bride; and about how sex never serves as surrogate for relationship; and how severed from promises and practices of fidelity, safety, sacrifice and constancy within marriage, sex get debased and abused; about how marriage commitments allow intimacy to flourish without fear or insecurity or shame; about how marital sex is the ultimate act of giving all rather than getting some; how it is devoted to the good of the other and not to the counterfeit good of self-gratification; and how its joy as a foretaste of the divine union between people and God makes it holy and beautiful and worthy of honor.
OK, my friend didn’t say all of that like that, but that was the gist and she said she’d never heard anything quite like it in her life. At first she thought he was kidding, but when she realized he wasn’t, she confessed to being completely bowled over. Recounting all of this to me after their wedding, she told me how it was in that moment in her apartment that he won her heart forever. Shaking her head in wonderment, she recounted how what impressed her most was not my friend’s religious conviction or his devotion to purity, as admirable and admittedly quaint as she found these to be. No, what impressed her most was his goodness. It made her happy—then and now 25 years and a houseful of kids later. It also made her grateful that men like my friend walked the earth—grateful enough to make her start believing in Jesus herself.
Knowing my friend and his family as well as I do, I also know their marital bliss has come with mitigating amounts of matrimonial misery—a reality consistent with the fact that marriage is always a union between two sinners. King Solomon sings how love is as strong as death, and sometimes it feels like death. Ironically, this is why marriage is considered to be such an appropriate analogy for our relationship to Jesus Christ as his church. In contrast to those who persist on idealizing marriage as a solution for society’s evils or some sublime state where giddiness and glee never end; in truth marriage, like the Christian life itself, is more concerned with cross-shaped transformation. Marriage demands sacrifice and forgiveness and grace and death to selfishness in a way that finally teaches you what real love looks like.
I attended a preaching conference this past week—hope you can tell. Princeton Seminary President Craig Barnes talked about marriage and weddings and how he gets a kick out officiating, standing up front beside grooms looking as good as they will ever look for the rest of their lives, awaiting brides adorned as royalty, processing down aisles as adoring congregations stand in honor. Once at the front, the bride and groom steal a knowing glance at each other, in bright and happy anticipation of a life they know absolutely nothing about. Dr. Barnes remarked how at these moments he likes to steal a knowing glance at the couples seated in the front rows, parents whose many years of sacrifice and commitment have made this day and these two lives possible. Their tired expressions of joy and relief belie the hardness and conflict of devotion the tension of commitment and determination, all the aspects of marriage that make it such a fierce and beautiful crucible of self-denial. We stand to honor the betrothed, he said, but we should rather stand to honor these whose knots have remained steadfastly tied.
“Set me as a seal over your heart,” Song of Solomon sings, “like a seal on your arm.” The image is of a signet ring or amulet, a signature of guaranteed belonging and unbreakable devotion. “For love is as strong as death, its passion fierce as the grave” we read, which is an odd way to think about it until you recall the deep sacrifice real love demands. Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for another: appropriate for marriage but also for friendship and for this Memorial Day as we remember those who have laid down lives for rightness and justice. Love holds us with a death grip on our hearts—it never lets go. Like the grave it cannot be resisted or escaped. We vow at weddings to love until parted by death, but Solomon hints here that love somehow transcends death too, even if marriage doesn’t. Jesus said that in the resurrection, we neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Last week at our Senior Minister Emeritus Arthur Rouner’s 85th birthday celebration, his wife Molly reminisced about their serving a small church long ago in New England. Molly sought to comfort an elderly woman whose husband had recently died. Molly expressed her sympathy, saying to the widow how she was so sorry for the loss of her beloved husband, to which the woman fiercely snapped back, “I didn’t lose him. I know where he is.”
“Love’s flashes are flashes of fire,” Solomon sings, “a raging flame,” an unusual Hebrew phrase translated by some as “the very flame of God,” whom Scripture elsewhere describes as a consuming fire. Love does consume us—heart, mind and body—just like God whose chief characteristic is love, accounting for love’s power and intensity: “Many waters cannot quench love, floods cannot drown it,” Solomon sings. As holy fire, love burns unquenchably strong. As sacred fire, it cannot be bought; to offer is an insult, even revolting and why we term the sordid attempt “trafficking.” “If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned,” and rightly so.
Solomon’s song may be about sex, but note how much the lover and beloved end up talking. Lover and beloved speak to each other frequently, poetically and in great detail. Love is a matter of body, mind and heart and should be declared. Lack of communication is among the the biggest problems in troubled marriages, couples in counseling will complain they never talk anymore. In some cases, nobody says anything because the truth of diminished love or betrayal is too hard to talk about. In other cases, the love is still there, latent and longing, but nobody knows what to say. Words may fail to express feelings of love sometimes, yet there are plenty of times when words do just fine if we’d simply speak up. This applies to all kinds of relationships: friendships and parent-child relationships, it can apply to our relationship to God, and Jesus said it should apply to enemies too. What if the trouble is that you love somebody but don’t know how to say it? Song of Solomon can help:
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for my love is strong as death, my passion for you fierce as the grave. Its flames are flashes of fire, the consuming fire of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench my love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for my love all the money on earth, that offer would be utterly scorned.”