Friday, August 31, 2012

Reflections from the Pastor – Song of Songs 2:8-13

Song of Love
Last week we concluded our series on King David with the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by David’s son and successor, King Solomon (I Kings 8).  That temple stood for close to 400 years before it was completely destroyed by the Babylonians.  It was later rebuilt after the Persians conquered Babylon and the 2nd Temple stood for over 500 years before it was finally and permanently destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 (A.D.).  It is hard to overstate the importance of the Temple in the life of the people of Israel.  The Temple was the center of their religious and civic life.  You can see the centrality of the Temple just by reading through any of the Gospels.  Jesus’ final week was spent in and around the (2nd) Temple.  Jesus cleared the moneychangers from the Temple courtyard; Jesus taught in various parts of the Temple; Jesus’ trial before the Council of Elders (The Sanhedrin) was held in the residence of the High Priest Caiaphas, which was attached to the Temple.  Even today, the one part of the temple that remains – the western wall of the Temple complex, now known as the Wailing Wall – attracts visitors from all of the world around the clock.
Without the Temple the piety and worship of the people of Israel needed to change drastically, and this change led them to enter more and more into the text of the Old Testament.  In fact, shortly after the events of the year 70 that led to the destruction of the Temple, a group of Rabbis met at a place called Jamnia to decide the canon of the Old Testament.  One of the books that was debated was the Song of Songs, which is also known as the Song of Solomon in honor of Israel’s reputed greatest lover.  The book itself never mentions God once, but is rather a collection of beautiful love poetry, some of which is very suggestive and erotic.  For the most part it takes the form of a dialog between two lovers – a man and a woman.  But it is the beauty of the poetry that eventually led the Rabbis to accept this book.  In fact, in the absence now of the Temple and, specifically the Holy of Holies, where it was believed God’s presence resided, many of these Rabbis, and those who followed them, saw in the poetry itself an evocation of the Holy of Holies.  Rabbi Akiba, one of the Jamnia Rabbis, is quoted in the Mishna: “Though the visible Temple be destroyed, through the medium of the Song (of Songs) it is still possible for those who pray to enter the presence of ‘The King’” In other words, entering into the text and poetry of the Song of Songs is an experience of the very presence of God!
So how should we approach this beautiful book, which even in translation is both beautiful and suggestive?  There have traditionally been two ways that Christians have approached this book.  One way is to take the text at face value as a celebration of human love and specifically of physical love.  God pronounced the work of creation as being “very good”, Tov (in Hebrew) which literally mean fantastic and unbelievable; and part of that creation is the unique ability for humans to experience and express this love. 
This approach has made some readers and interpreters very uncomfortable, even in the liberated environment of our own modern society.  Some simply cannot accept that THAT is in the bible!  Which leads us to the 2nd approach – to interpret the book of Song of Songs as an allegory; that is, a book length metaphor of God’s love for human beings.  In the hands of the early Christian church fathers the Song of Songs was seen specifically as an allegory for Christ’s love for the church.  In fact, this understanding was so popular that the number of commentaries on passages from this book is higher than any other book in the Old Testament.  The 11th century French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux actually wrote 86 sermons on Song of Songs and barely got past chapter 2!
So our question then is how should we approach this book.  The poetry is incredibly beautiful, and in and of itself is, as Rabbi Akiba suggested, an experience of the holy.  But do we have to choose?  Do we have to make a choice between God’s love and human love?  Is it necessarily that one is good and the other is bad?  Do we need to make a choice between the spiritual self-giving love (agapé) of Christ and the celebration of the gift of physical love (eros) that can develop between two human beings?  No, I don’t think we have to choose. I would like to suggest that this book itself shows us that the love of God and human love are related and interwoven.  Love in every form and manifestation is a creation and gift of God’s.
Not only that but love is also a transforming experience. Falling in love changes your life, it changes your priorities.  One minute you are (seemingly) in control of your life and then next minute love has changed everything.  We have all experienced this to some degree or another.  Literature, plays, movies and songs of all ages have expressed this exact same thing over and over and over again.  Human love is transformational – to say “I love you” is to give yourself to another, in a way that we might not be inclined to if we were to make a rational decision. But love is not rational. We don’t decide to fall in love (have you ever tried to make yourself fall in love?) It comes to us, often unexpectedly as a surprise and a gift.  In this way then is human love a “foretaste of the feast to come” for it reflects the love which God has for us; the extreme self-giving love shown to us by Christ. In our experience of human love we experience a taste of heaven!
To be in love with someone is to find your whole being tied up with the beloved, to want to be wherever the beloved is, to want good things for him or her. You can no more forget the one you love than you could forget your own name or forget that you are alive. No one else will do. You want to share yourself, all of yourself, with the beloved, and you want all of him or her in return. Separation is restless sorrow. In reunion the world seems complete again. Those who are caught up in such a love for another can catch a fragmentary, often fleeting glimpse of the love God has for God's beloved. God loves Israel that much. Christ loves the church that much. Christ loves each of us as if we were the only one. In the words of the human lover we can hear, if we are attentive, the deeper echoes of another invitation: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away"1.
1. “Reveling in Romance” by Martin Copenhaver – Christian Century, August 1994.
 Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.
The sermon based on this text and outlined above was preached by me at Peace, on Sunday, September 2, 2012.  The audio for that sermon can be found and listened to on the media page at

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