This post originally appeared in our parish's newsletter, The View. To read more of what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, click here.
A few months ago, I decided that it might be fun to teach a class on Song of Solomon—a book of the bible that I have never really studied in detail. Although not intimately familiar with the specific images or language found in the text, I knew that it portrayed the relationship between God and God’s people as that of two lovers in pursuit of one another. Usually, God’s love for the world is described as agape—the kind of selfless, sacrificial love that has no boundaries—but Song of Solomon uses eros—the love reserved for sexual passion. Even before I read the text, I knew that it would be a racy series, but I failed to anticipate just how explicitly erotic the class would become.
I have needed an entirely new anatomical vocabulary for this bible study. Sitting in a room with a few men and a bevy of ladies, many of whom are more than twice my age, I have enjoyed the challenge of discussing bedroom behavior in a church setting. Sometimes I rely on metaphor or innuendo to convey the actions of the two lovers, which the author of the Song covertly expresses (let the reader understand!), but, more often than not, the veil behind which the poet hides their physical affection is thin enough for all to see straight through. If you cannot recall the sort of imagery I am describing, take a moment and read Song of Solomon 7:1-9. You might wonder to yourself why such a poem is found in holy scripture.
That question—why is this text in the bible—has been the focus of our class. It has been the greatest and most interesting challenge of the series. Even more difficult than searching for a modest way to discuss this immodest text, that persistent inquiry has left us scratching our heads. Is this merely a poem about two lovers? Does its supposed Solomonic provenance earn it a place in the Hebrew bible? Should we deemphasize its erotic language and read it instead as an image of God’s relationship with Israel? Or should we shift this text forward in history and understand it purely as a description of Christ’s love for the Church?
Personally, I like to think of it as a little bit of all of those things. The Song, after all, is poetry, and far be it from me to restrict the beauty of timeless poetry to a narrow, singular interpretation. Still, I believe that these verses are supposed to stretch us—to press us into a new, broader, deeper understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to him. These words are supposed to make us uncomfortable—not merely because they describe in vivid detail the physical encounter of two impassioned lovers but more importantly because they force us to consider the fullness of God’s love in a way that threatens our Puritanical sensibilities.
Consider for a moment the proposition that God loves you no matter what. For my entire life, I have heard those words from parents, teachers, and preachers. I say them over and over from the pulpit. But how do we understand those words to be true? As I attempt to internalize the unfathomable love of God, I invent a sort of divine economy in which my failures as a sinful human being are overcome by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I recognize the limitations of that approach, but it is my best effort in explaining the inexplicable. In that mindset, however, I devalue my lovability and describe God’s love for me principally as a measured trade-off of his Son for my sin. There is value in that sacrificial, cross-centered understanding of agape, but I must also remember that God’s love for me is not meted out in doses of rationality. It is also the reckless, unabashed, all-consuming love depicted in the Song of Solomon.
Like a transfixed lover, God looks upon us with unquenchable love. No blemish, no disfigurement, no distraction can keep him away. In the words of the poet, God says to us, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you” (4:7). Humans in every generation have known that kind of blinding love, but who could think of himself in those terms when standing in the presence of God? Although we might pursue God with such passion, who could claim that God loves her like that? Yet that is the invitation of the Song of Solomon. That is why this strange and erotic book belongs in the bible. These holy verses invite us to consider ourselves as lovable in God’s eyes—not because we are perfect nor because we deserve God’s love but simply because God loves us like that and because his love makes us loveable.
What does the Song of Solomon teach me? It teaches me to allow God’s love for me and my love for God make me blush. Sunday's Track One OT reading (Song of Solomon 2:8-13) is a tiny slice of that blush-inducing poetry. Perhaps the preacher might take the opportunity to make all of us blush when considering the magnitude of God's love for us.