What in the World is this doing in the Bible?

The Song of Songs that is Solomon’s, or, Canticles[1] is the most enigmatic book in the Bible. Like Esther, Song of Songs makes no mention of God.[2] Esther alludes to God and makes it easy to see God working behind the scenes. Not so here. Song of Songs is an erotic, passionate love poem in which two young lovers are ravished with one another’s sexuality. That bothers a lot of people.

After living a very promiscuous life, Augustine of Hippo was converted to Christianity and lent his skills to integrating Platonic philosophy with Christian doctrine. Among other things, he invented the idea that God designed sex for only one purpose – to make babies. Any other use of sex was deemed sinful. That became the dominant (if not practiced) view in occidental civilization for nearly 17 centuries. It led to Victorian prudery, the belief that contraception is contrary to God’s will, and an exalting of celibacy over marriage. Sex was basically wrong and to be avoided if possible, albeit occasionally necessary to propagate humankind.

That all blew up in the sexual revolution that began in the late 1950s. Sex as duty, sex as a necessary evil, was tossed out and replaced with sex as recreation. “If it feels good, do it.” Sex is fun. Enjoy it whenever and with whoever you want. 

Then came sexually transmitted diseases and broken hearts, so the idea of recreational sex was tempered with “be safe, make sure you’re ready and you really care about the other person.”

Long before the sexual revolution, even long before Augustine, is the Song of Solomon, a delightful, passionate, joyous, explicit celebration of sex. Song of Solomon denies both prudery and free sex. The two people in the Song of Songs are quite obviously totally committed to each other. They are monogamous. They give themselves abandonedly to each other in thorough guiltless enjoyment and heated passion. We humans are designed as sexual beings and are free to fully and lavishly enjoy that within committed relationships. The woman in the poem warns her female friends, however, not to stir up sexual passion before they are ready. Her advice works for males as well. It’s a fire that can easily get out of control.

OK, but still, isn’t the Bible the book about God? Shouldn’t, therefore, all the books of the Bible be about God? 

Enter the theologians. 

No one knows when Song of Songs was written, but it was around by about the third century before Jesus was born and it was accepted into the Jewish canon as scripture. Rabbis have long taken it as an allegory of the love God has for Israel. Christian theologians built off of that and have for two millennia viewed the book as an allegory of the love between Jesus and his bride – the church, the people of God.

Both of those views make sense. There are hints of backstory in the poem. One not entirely far-fetched possible but imaginative backstory is that King Solomon disguised himself as a simple shepherd in order to take walks in the countryside without being harassed. (It’s hard to be alone when you’re a celebrity.) On one of those walks in what is now Lebanon, he met and fell in love with a simple village girl. They pledge their troth to one another. He tells her he’ll come back and get her and marry her. She waits. The royal entourage shows up one day, complete with the king riding in his palanquin. The king emerges, and lo and behold, he is her shepherd lover! They ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.

Jesus came as simple peasant, won our hearts, and left promising to come back for us. When he does, we who are engaged to Jesus[3] will be wed and enjoy “the marriage feast of the Lamb.” And, we will live happily ever after. 

Whether or not we can follow an analogy like that in the text, its lesson is true. If we read the lines spoken by the man in Song of Songs as the words of Jesus to us (and the words of the woman as ours to him)[4], we gain a deeper awareness of the radical scandalous love God has for us. We discover, for example, that, we are all fair and beautiful in God’s eyes and that Jesus loves being with us.

There’s yet another lesson in Song of Songs.

Song of Songs is filled with garden imagery.

In chapter 2, the male voice sings: 

Get up, my dear friend,
    fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Look around you: Winter is over;
    the winter rains are over, gone!
Spring flowers are in blossom all over.
    The whole world’s a choir—and singing!
Spring warblers are filling the forest
    with sweet arpeggios.
Lilacs are exuberantly purple and perfumed,
    and cherry trees fragrant with blossoms.
Oh, get up, dear friend,
    my fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Come, my shy and modest dove—
    leave your seclusion, come out in the open.
Let me see your face,
    let me hear your voice.

For your voice is soothing
    and your face is ravishing

Chapter 4 speaks of

Ripe apricots and peaches,
    oranges and pears;
Nut trees and cinnamon,
    and all scented woods;
Mint and lavender,
    and all herbs aromatic;
A garden fountain, sparkling and splashing,
    fed by spring waters from the Lebanon mountains

And in that same chapter, the woman sings:

Wake up, North Wind,
    get moving, South Wind!
Breathe on my garden,
    fill the air with spice fragrance
. (MSG)[5]

In Canticles, the garden is abundant, fruitful, lush, copious, and verdant. It reminds us of Eden before the fall, and stands in stark contrast to the thorn and thistle infested Eden after sin enters the system. 

As Genesis opens, all is chaos, disorder. God speaks and brings order into the chaos, light into the darkness, beauty into bareness, life into a lifeless void. It is good. It is very good. It is beautiful. But it’s not complete.

God invites humans, created in the divine image, to partner with God in expanding Eden until the whole earth is a garden. That’s what “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” means. God is saying much more than have a bunch of kiddos. The humans are to guard the garden against evil forces and expand it out into the remaining disorder in the cosmos. They mess up. They let evil in and they don’t extend the beauty of Eden.

If we fast-forward to the last book of the Bible, we see the culmination – the whole cosmos is a beautiful garden-city. Heaven comes to earth. Earth and heaven wed. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.

Between Genesis and Revelation sits the Song of Songs. Throughout, it not only celebrates the love of two people, but also the restoration of harmony. When the first humans sinned, discord resulted. There was discord between people (“It’s the woman you gave me!”), discord in nature (thorns and thistles), and discord with God (“Adam, where are you?”). Dissonance everywhere.

Look around today. Dissonance. Discord. Pollution. Fouled air. Oceans full of plastic. Species going extinct. The environment raped for profit. Police killing black men. Riots. Income inequality. War. Lies. People selfishly refusing to protect others from pandemic viruses. People claiming to be Christian while supporting policies and politicians diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Dissonance. Discord.

The Hebrew word teshuqah(תְּשׁוּקָה)is very rare. It occurs only three times in the Bible. It means a desire or a longing. At the fall, God tells the woman that she will desire her husband but he will rule over her. In Genesis 4, God warns Cain that sin desires to snatch him. And in the Song of Songs (7:10), the woman declares, I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.

See the contrast, the reversal? 

  • Genesis: Sin, fall, discord, environment out of whack. 
  • Song of Songs: harmony, congruence, a flourishing garden filled with fruit and nut trees. 
  • Genesis: the woman’s longing will be toward her husband. 
  • Song of Songs: the husband longs for his bride. Partners. Equals. Two strong independent people ravished unselfishly with one another. 

Unity. Harmony. Peace. Justice.

How? Not by ignoring wrong. Not by excusing injustice. Not by violence. Unity, harmony, peace, and justice in the environment and in society come from nonviolent, self-sacrificing, other-oriented, altruistic, cruciform agapé love. A third way. The way of the cross. The way of Jesus. 

Celebrate with me, friends!
    Raise your glasses—“To life! To love!”

[1]You’ll see it abbreviated S of S, Song, or Cant

[2]The closest that any verse comes to mentioning God is 8:6, which in some versions reads: Put me like a seal over your heart/ Like a seal on your arm. /For love is as strong as death, / Jealousy is as severe as Sheol; / Its flashes are flashes of fire, / The very flame of the Lord. Most translations leave out the word “Lord”, as, for example, NASB, “a vehement flame.” NIV and NET read, “a mighty flame.” The reference is to burning passion, not to God.

[3]Baptism is our engagement to Christ. The second coming is our wedding procession. The marriage feast of the Lamb is our reception. 

[4]Helpfully, many translators mark who is speaking in the text based on the gender of the Hebrew nouns. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell sometimes.

[5]All scripture quotations are taken from THE MESSAGE, copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter

Posted on May 31, 2020, in anabaptist, apologetics, Bible, Bible Teaching, bodily resurrection, Christianity, creation, Jesus, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God, parables, Peace Shalom Hesed, Poetry, Prayer, Spirituality, The Cross, Worship. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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