Brendon Larson is a conservation biologist
at Waterloo University (in Canada).
He wrote a book on
Redefining Our Relationship
With Nature which is primarily about the language
in which scientific research is communicated.
Along the way, he said something insightful
about the language of poetry. He said,
Part of what a poet does is to come up with novel language that reveals something that was previously unnoticed. 1
And so today we come to one of the most beautiful poems
in the Bible, even in the history of literature:
The Most Beautiful Song, the
Song of Songs.
When I was looking at the book earlier this month,
I wrote this:
Some landscape views are pretty, while others are so beautiful they're painful. Some poems are nice; the Song of Songs is so exquisite that it hurts. I just finished rereading the whole Song. I'm still not quite sure whether we ought to read it in church. 2
That is to say, the Song of Songs reveals to us something which otherwise might remain unnoticed. Like all revelations, that something in the Song may be something uncomfortable. It may be something we would prefer remained unnoticed.
But it cannot be unnoticed, because it is too beautiful.
Some would say that the Song of Songs is a metaphor
for the love with which God loves the Jewish people,
and it is that.
Others would say that the Song of Songs is an analogy
for the love between Jesus, the bridegroom,
and his bride, the Church. And it is that.
Some would say that the Song is an echo of an ancient
pagan liturgy worshiping the creative principle
which brings life into our world.
And it is that, too.
But the Song of Songs as we have it today,
as it is printed in the Bibles in your homes
and in your children's hands and in all the pews here,
that Song of Songs is something simpler,
more elegant, more beautiful than all these things:
It is Hebrew erotic poetry.
And so I hesitated, when I had reread the Song,
and I said,
I'm not quite sure whether we ought
to read it in church.
But we must, because it is too beautiful.
Perhaps I surprised you with the suggestion that the Song of Songs is an echo of ancient paganism, but that is likely to be true. You know from reading the books of Judges and Kings that Canaanite religion survived in the land of Israel long after the Hebrew people settled there. Canaanite religious practice would have been familiar to the Hebrews, as would Assyrian, Hittite, and Babylonian religion. The Psalms make free use of mythic images and literary forms borrowed from neighboring religions and the prophets, too, alluded to them.
The Song of Songs is a public statement of love, not a personal and private exchange. It is set in the village, and the village women form a chorus which participates in the story. The woman addresses the village women twice with the words,
Promise me, women of Jerusalem,
swear by the swift deer and the gazelles
that you will not interrupt our love.
[1:7; 3:5] 3
Later, she begs the women,
Promise me, women of Jerusalem,
that if you find my lover,
you will tell him I am weak from passion.
And the chorus of village women have their own parts to speak as well. In response to that last request, the women ask,
Most beautiful of women,
is your lover different from everyone else?
What is there so wonderful about him
that we should give you our promise?
In the Hebrew, I'm told, the different parts are implied by the person and gender constructions of the words of the dialog. English has none of that, so most modern translators have tried to make the various roles explicit for our benefit.
Why would there be a chorus in a love poem? Only because this love poem is liturgical theater. It is a public poem, and that is very important.
In the ancient pagan liturgies, the man and woman were reenacting the creative act of the goddess of fertility bringing renewal to the earth. This would have been a celebration of life by the whole community: the young men and women and especially the mothers. The village mothers have an obvious role in carrying on the health and fertility of the village, so the chorus of women would not be surprising. This is the form which was taken over to give structure to the Song of Songs.
Every liturgy should be a love poem between the worshipers and the God whom they worship. Open your Moravian hymnal and look at any of our liturgies. They surely do not read like the Song of Songs, and yet they are songs of love. In our liturgy for evangelism, we say,
God of creation, whose love invites all people to receive the blessing reserved for us since before time began …
[page 134] 4
On Easter morning, we say,
Spirit of truth, direct our hearts to the love of God and to patient waiting for Christ.
[page 85] 4
In the liturgy for stewardship, we say,
We assemble here celebrating the joys of human life, shared one with the other. [page 154] 4
It is nothing strange for us, therefore, to say that liturgy is a love poem between us and God.
It is precisely from this understanding that Jewish scholars have claimed the Song of Songs to be an expression of the love between God and God's chosen people. It is from the same understanding that Christian theologians have held the Song before us as an expression of Jesus' love for the church. Sometimes these claims have strayed away from this simple declaration of love; sometimes the argument becomes dry and academic or the song is allegorized to the point where little of the love remains visible. But at its heart, this claim is true: God loves us as deeply, as simply, as passionately as we can imagine, and asks for our love in return.
Every liturgy should be a love poem between us and God.
Every liturgy should be a celebration of the passion
which binds us to Jesus Christ and to each other
as God's family.
Each time we gather we declare, one way or another,
We assemble here celebrating the joys
of human life and singing our love of the God
who created life, and who created love.
and who is in love with us.
The Song of Songs has the form of a pagan liturgy, but it is not pagan worship. The Song can help us to understand the love which God shares with us, and to participate more fully in that love, but it is not a song between God and us.
The Song of Songs is what it is: a love poem. It is a poem singing the love between a woman and a man because that love is good. The Song of Songs is passionate, sensual, erotic. The woman opens the dialog by saying to her man,
Your lips cover me with kisses;
you love is better than wine.
The woman apostrophizes the Winds. She says,
Wake up, North Wind.
South Wind, blow on my garden;
fill the air with fragrance.
Let my lover come to his garden
and eat the best of its fruits.
The man looks at the woman and says,
Turn your eyes away from me;
they are holding me captive. …
I am trembling; you have made as eager for love
as a chariot drive is for battle.
The Song of Songs is a love poem singing the love between a man and a woman. It sings that love because it is good.
The Song of Songs is a very public love song. Both in the imaginary village which is the setting for the poem and in the very real public gathering of the church which reads the poem, this is a public singing of passionate love. The Song is not only a personal and private pleasure but also a public declaration and a sharing of joy of something which is very good with the community.
The Song of Songs is a public act of affirmation by the village, by the community, by the church that this passionate, sensual, committed relationship is good; it is very good. The Song is a participation by the community in the good thing which has grown here.
We, the community of the church, Christ's people —
we sing the Song of Songs as a public affirmation
of the love which sings this song between the woman
and the man.
We assemble here celebrating the joys of human life,
shared one with the other, as the liturgy says.
We sing also in affirmation and praise
of the greater love which makes this love possible.
For (as Marian Boyle wrote) it is
God's love that brings the gift of love between the couple in the Songs, that makes such love possible, sacred, and beautiful. 5
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Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability:
Redefining Our Relationship with Nature.
Yale University Press. 2011.
Quoted by Nancy Golubiewski,
Mind Your Language,
Science, 5 August 2011, page 701.
2 Cardinal, Peter. Email to Marian Boyle, January 23, 2011.
3 American Bible Society. Good News Bible: The Bible in Today's English Version. 1976.
4 Moravian Book of Worship. The Moravian Church, Interprovincial Board of Publications and Communications. 1995.
5 Boyle, Marian. Email to Peter Cardinal, January 26, 2011.