Two Songs of Solomon

Song of Solomon 2, 8, in passim

John 3: 1-17

Frontispiece

There are two Songs of Solomon. One of the heart and one of the soul.

There are two Songs of Solomon. One of the flesh and one of the spirit.

There are two Songs of Solomon. One of earth and one of heaven.

There are two Songs of Solomon. One of human love and one of love divine.

There are two Songs of Solomon. Hear the Gospel: Both are blessed!

Three things are too wonderful for me. Four I cannot understand. The way of a ship on the high sea. The way of the eagle in the sky. The way of the serpent on the rock. The way of a man and a woman.

Faneuil Hall

In December our granddaughter, our daughter, Jan and I rode the T to Haymarket Square. Our beloved’s beloved baby gurgled past Boylston and Park. The Christmas lights glistened out from a soft Nevada. You could see your breath. Jan had seen advertised a free reading of love letters, from Abigail Adams to John Adams, and from John Adams to Abigail Adams, and offered in historic Faneuil Hall, and read by three couples named Patrick, Dukakis, and Kennedy.

There are kairos moments. Whether or not your earnest study of Oscar Cullman and Luke and Galatians convinces you, life will teach you. When Mrs. Duval read Abigail’s letter following Bunker Hill, to a distant John in Washington, full of terror and wonder at whether she would live the week, the air went out of the room. When Governor Dukakis read later John’s angry criticism of the laziness of the congress, and paused midsentence to look meaningfully at Senator Kennedy, no words were needed to bring the house to robust laughter. When Kitty Dukakis read slowly the long, love sentences, ripe and revealing, from wife to husband, from dearest friend to dearest friend, you wondered truly whether you could breathe again. When we heard the horrific sorrow of Abigail’s mother’s death, read out by Mrs. Kennedy, only a stone would not have cried. And I wonder about the stone. Every seat was full. As every heart. See how they loved each other!

Listen, for just a moment, Abigail to John:

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing on of Friend (MDF, 110).

Listen for just a moment, John to Abigail:

It is a fortnight to day Since I had Letter from you but it Seems to me a month. I cannot blame you for one of yours is worth four of mine. (MDF, 370)

I say to our theology students: live in Boston. When your three years have passed, may you have spent 2 days in Boston for every 1 at Boston University, 2 hours in the Copley Square library for every 1 at the School of Theology, 2 mornings in the Public Garden for every 1 at the GSU, 2 nights with the Celtics and Red Sox for every 1 watching TV in the apartment, 2 meals in the North End for every 1 in the Back Bay, 2 winter afternoons walking on Commonwealth for every 1in the FitRec, 2 desserts on Newbury street for every 1 at home.

If I never have another such kairotic moment in Boston, this one evening will have been enough. To whomever arranged such a rhetorical explosion, I offer belated thanksgiving. There is such power, such a searing power, in public reading, in public reading of hallowed words, of public reading of hallowed words fitly spoken. You pick up and read, and read aloud, My Dearest Friend, and judge for yourself. It brings to mind a little remembered verse from a maverick book in the Bible, which itself is a testament of freedom.

Love is as strong as death.

That sentence appears in the Song of Solomon. But there are really two songs of Solomon, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Both are blessed.

Heart

One Solomon song sings of human love. And how it sings! So loud it sings and so dearly and strong that the sages in Jamnia nearly excluded it from the canon!

You will have your choicest choices. Here are two:

Arise my love, my fair one,

And come away;

For lo the winter is past,

The rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth,

The time of singing has come,

And the voice of the turtledove

Is heard in our land.

(Song of Songs 2: 10-12)

Behold you are beautiful, my love

Behold you are beautiful!

Your eyes are doves

Behind your veil

Your hair is like a flock of goats,

Moving down the slopes of Gilead.

Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes.

Your lips are like a scarlet thread

Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate…

(YOU CAN READ THE REST YOURSELF!!)..

You are all fair my love;

There is no flaw in you.

(Song of Songs 4: 1-8)

Collected in the Canticles are love poems, erotic poems, poems of praise for human love. One of our members asked a year ago whether any sermons are ever preached on the Song. The implication was there that the verses are simply too hot to handle! Last week another member related that in childhood, advised to read the Bible, she had stumbled into these verses. I believe she said, Wow!

Saddled with other challenges for a few decades, the historic church may have lost of some of our voice about love, human love, sexuality, human sexuality, and the ardent themes of the Song of Songs, the meta-song of the Hebrew Scripture. While our own straitened conditions in the church, and our inwardly turned attention to the details of liturgy may constrain us, all about us the culture calls out for the good news of these chapters. It is still the same old story.

The stories of Alistair Macleod, Canadian celebrant of life, are ever reaching for the misty and mystic heights of the Song of Solomon. Macleod, with the exception of one passing humorous reference to an inept clergyman, in none of his published material makes any reference to God, Christ, Spirit, Religion, Church, Faith, Belief or Bible. Like the Song of Solomon, he never mentions God. Yet his work to my ear proffers some of the strongest theological reflection of our time. Island, his stories, and No Great Mischief, his novel, teem with love. He compares one Cape Breton couple to eagles, who mate for life, and soar to the heights.

The verses of this book may have arisen as wedding songs. They celebrate love leading toward marriage and love established in marriage, without a great deal of distinction between the two. They acknowledge the power of love. They drape their music in the imagery of the natural world. They shout for joy for the joyful shout of love, human love. As a pastor, father, friend, now minister to a University community, I might have wished a little more didactic material had found its way into the Canticle. A little admonition about commitment. A little recognition of selfishness. A little sober admission of imperfection. A little paternal warning about regret and regrets. Well, we shall have to find these in other pages of the Scripture, for these songs are flying to other places. They reflect the human experience of the ages. They delight in delight. They delight in delight!

Yes, I could interpret and amend these passages to make sure that we include partnership and friendship as well as covenant and marriage. Yes, we could dwell for a moment on the difference between the literature here and that in the rest of the Bible: ’there is no overt religious content corresponding to the other books of the Bible’ (IBD op cit). Yes, I could remember the sectarian Jewish warning that the book should only be opened and read after age thirty. Yes, I could reflect on what emptiness of the soul does, on this weekend following the further campus tragedy at Northern Illinois. Yes, I could present to the contrary, T Wolfe’s sad narrative, I Am Charlotte Simmons. For those teaching and learning in a large historically Methodist University it bears reading. We use when we should love and vice versa. Thus, though, I would miss the point. The Song of Solomon sings of blessing!

Human love is blessed.

Soul

But there are two Songs of Solomon, one of heart and one of soul, one of flesh and one of spirit, one of earth and one of heaven, one of human love and one of love divine.

Another Solomon song sings of love divine.

The allegorical, cultic, dramatic and other non-literal readings of the Song of Solomon have less influence today. In any case, they fall fairly quickly in the face of the ardent, strong sensuality of
the collection. The rabbis early allegorized the Song to refer to Yahweh and Israel. The church early followed suit, and allegorized the Song to refer to Christ and the Church, or to God and the soul. Hosea had already used the allegory, in his beautiful chapters, the 11th being perhaps the loveliest in Scripture. But he done so forthrightly, intending and intoning the allegory directly. ‘When Israel was a child I loved him.’ As a reading of the text, it must be said today, that the allegory superimposes something not apparent or present.

What is dethroned from Scripture, however, experience re-crowns. It is not without wisdom that this bit of wisdom literature has been taken to refer, in a Lenten fashion, to the love of the soul for God, to the love of God for the soul, to the love the church for Christ, to the love of Christ for the church. After all, how are we ever going to picture, to propose the relationship of the human being to God?

Here is today’s gospel message:

What can prepare us for intimacy with the divine, if not human intimacy?

What can prepare us for covenant with the divine, if not human covenant?

What can prepare us for fellowship with the divine, if not human fellowship?

What can prepare us for love of the divine, if not human love?

Where else are we going to learn the rhythms of relationship that prepare a community and its individuals, an individual and his communities, for ultimate relationship?

No wonder Plato wrote so tenderly and toughly about friendship. No wonder John the Evangelist epitomized discipleship in the portrait of one ‘beloved’. No wonder Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Songs and never got past the second chapter! No wonder that John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila took Italian love poetry and formed their religious poetry on their models. No wonder that even today there is a returning interest in ‘nuptial mysticism’, a recognition that love, friendship, partnership, marriage shape a soulful habit of living. It is in the relationship of lover and beloved that we plumb the depths of experience.

In relationship, we are addressed, truly, from beyond ourselves. We are forced, in real relationship, daily, to face our limitations. We are, in relationship, known, personally, underneath the public masks. We are tested, interpersonally, regarding our patience, stamina, endurance, perseverance, longsuffering and grace under pressure. We are surprised by joy. Joy in love. Joy in creation. Joy in communion. Joy in devotion. Morning and evening, we are surprised by joy. Even C. S. Lewis, no non-traditionalist he, could find the epitome of his orthodoxy in an astounding marriage and friendship and love with Joy.

My friend and student Joshua Duncan, relying on our colleague Phil Wogaman, helped me research this sermon:

Bernard preached dozens of sermons and wrote volumes on the song.

There is an entire sermon just on “He kissed me with the kisses of his mouth”, so it is hard to synthesize. I hope this will suffice.

Bernard used the Song to form an ethic based on love. Love, he felt, allowed people to transform from our natural, fallen and selfish state, to more holy state. This happens in stages. First, love is for self, and love of God in the first stage is for the sake of one’s self. But, this is not an improper love, because it allows for movement to stage two. This happens when we realize our own limitations, and desire to transcend them. Stage two is love of God for what he gives us (namely, grace). Once we move beyond our limitations (Bernard is a mystic), we are able to enter stage three, love of God for God’s own sake, even to the extent of forgetting ourselves. In stage four, we love ourselves once again, but it is an emptied out version of ourselves (did someone say mysticism?). The love of ourselves in stage four is entirely unselfish, because it is a love of ourselves purely for the sake of God.

In the mountains northwest of Madrid, you will find nestled the little old Castilian village of Segovia. I spent only a year there. I walked its cobbled streets during the evening paseo. I was befriended by its teenagers. Adios Roberto. Adios Marie Carmen. Adios Celia. Adios Eduardo. I gazed out at the mountain range that had inspired Hemingway. I ate the baked lamb and drank the red wine of that region. I admired its aqueduct. I photographed its castle. I learned the language, the humor, the humors, the history, the heart, the soul of a noble people. I walked in the dark late night rain and greeted the town crier and constable: ‘Adios’. Someday I hope to return. I find that Segovia appears with more regularity in my dreams now than it has for thirty years past.

I visited there the resting place of St. John of the Cross. I read and remembered his poetry: en una noche oscura, con ansias en amores inflamadas, o dichosa ventura!, sali sin ser notada, estando ya mi casa sosegada.

Lent may not seem like the right time to read the Song of Songs. Yet it is the perfect time! Our hearts are restless, restless, until they find their rest in the divine, the second song of Solomon. Such a word of longing! Is there anything, any theme more Lenten than that of longing!?!

Set me as a seal upon your heart

As a seal upon your arm;

For love is strong as death,

Jealousy is cruel as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,

A most vehement flame.

Many waters cannot quench love,

Neither can floods drown it.

If a man offered for love

All the wealth of his house

It would be utterly scorned.

Human love is blessed—by God.

Invitation

There are two Songs of Solomon…

In earshot of the two Songs of Solomon, love divine and human both, let me invite you to a better life.

Let me invite you to cherish friendship, and to bathe friendship, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to honor partnership, and to bathe partnership, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to enjoy affection, and to bathe affection, like a lover, in warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to revere marriage, and to bathe marriage, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention.

For such friendship may frame your soul in communion with the divine. Such partnership may prepare your soul for commerce with the divine. Such affection may prepare your psyche for intimacy with the divine. Such marriage may open you…to God.

“Love is strong as death and hard as hell.” (SOS 8:6)

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