Fans of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” radio show may recall the episode – many years ago now – in which the boys in the back of Pastor Ingqvist’s confirmation class were reading from the Song of Solomon (from which today’s Old Testament reading is taken) and sniggering. “How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful!” They read, from chapter 4.
Your eyes are like 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 that have come up from the washing… Your lips are like a crimson thread… Your cheeks are like the halves of a pomegranate… Your neck is like the tower of David…
You may notice that the Song is moving from the top down in its description of this beautiful young woman. It is the subsequent lines that cause the boys to snigger.
As I recall, Keillor tells how Pastor Ingqvist is perfectly aware of what is going on in the back of his class, and he is torn about how to respond. On the one hand, he is concerned about what the parents might say if they were to discover their sons reading the rather risqué language of the Song, right there in confirmation class after church on a Sunday morning. On the other hand, years ago he himself had been one of those boys in the back of class, keeping a finger in the book of Proverbs, to flip there just in case. He’s been there; he understands. And besides, he tells himself, maybe it might help those boys find the family Bible on the shelf at home, blow the dust off the top and actually open it.
We might well wonder why the Song of Solomon is in our scriptures. Maybe – as the title suggests – it was originally thought that these songs really were written by King Solomon, and as such they should be accorded the status of “scripture” and be included in the canon. Scholars, though, tell us that the Song is actually a collection of songs that were part of ancient Hebrew wedding ceremonies. It was common in the ancient Near East to process the bride and groom around and sing songs to them as though they were royalty. (We see similarities to this in Greek orthodox weddings, in which the bride and groom are crowned and then marched around the altar three times while chants are sung to them; a portion called “The Dance of Isaiah”.) Maybe the Song was included in the scriptures as a kind of repository for these songs, to give them some stature, and so they wouldn’t be lost.
I think that the Spirit caused the Songs to be part of the scriptures to increase our chances of more readily seeing how much God loves us.
It’s not always easy to see that God loves us. We might have moments when we glimpse something of the vastness or the beauty or the providence of God. Or we might have moments when we see – in spite of that vastness – yet God has intimate, tender love for each and every one of us, loving us as though God had no one else to love. And we might have moments, too, when we see, how much God loves all parts of all of us, wholly and completely.
But, if you’re like me, those moments are few and far between. It’s possible that I may have increased my “batting average” over the years and become more aware more often of God’s love for me, but… for me, most of the time – and I suspect that for each of us, most of the time – it’s hard to see how much God loves us.
It’s not always easy to see how much God loves us, and God knows it’s not always easy. And so God, because God delights to reveal Himself to us, gives us multiple ways of seeing his love, in hopes that at least one of them might speak to us and get us to take a closer look. The Song of Solomon, from which we heard this morning, is one of God’s ways of inviting us to take a closer look.
The poems from the Song of Solomon are absolutely beautiful poems. I encourage you to go home and read them. I think we’ll all be able to relate to them – Who among us has not fallen in love? Who among us does not yearn for love? The Song has a way of making God’s love present to us in a way that we can relate to.
To use today’s reading as an example of God’s love for us, Christ is our “beloved.” It is Christ who comes to us, leaping upon the mountains. It is Christ who stands outside our walls, looking in through the windows, speaking to us. And, as we read further into the Song, maybe we can imagine that it is Christ telling us how beautiful we are; or leading our soul away to taste his “sweet delights;” or that it is after Christ that our souls run out at dusk into the city, and so forth.
The medieval monks loved the Song’s metaphor of Christ as lover. Bernard of Clarivaux, a monk and a great 12th century preacher, in a famous sermon on the Song, said, “Let him who is the most handsome of men, let him kiss me with the kiss of his lips… Let him speak to me… Let his love become a spring inside of me… I ask of him what I ask of neither man nor angel: that he kiss me with the kiss of his lips.” I encourage you to go online and check out Bernard’s sermons. They’re an extraordinary window into the mind of one who could imagine that God loved him as much as the young man and the young woman loved each other.
I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough that when you go home today you might take out your Bible and, like the boys in the back of Pastor Ingqvist’s confirmation class, go take a look at the Song itself. (If you don’t have a Bible, you may borrow one out of the pews here until you get one.) I encourage you to take some time with these scriptures and pay attention to what He might have to say to you. Maybe tell Him – as you would a dear friend – what is on your heart, what you are feeling, how your day is going / has gone. Maybe imagine – using the Song as a guide – what He might have to say in return. I wonder if He would try to tell you that He loves you. I wonder if He would try to tell you how much He loves you. And I wonder, what would it be like for you to hear Him tell you, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away?”