Whenever a bad word was uttered, my father would groan like a frog. I always thought it brought more attention than the word deserved, but he considered it a thorough warning. When we saw Goodfellas, I thought he was going to have a heart attack.
You could only imagine how embarrassing it was when we saw a romance scene. Oh, how I hated those moments. Awkward.
I am sure that’s how Jewish boys and girls of old felt when it was Song of Solomon day at the local synagogue. They probably squirmed in their seats when the rabbi read something like, “With great delight I sat in my beloved’s shadow, and his fruit was sweet…” (2:4). For its time, it was as graphic as any R-rated film that, according to the Oxford Study Bible, was likened to a “feast for the senses.”
The Song of Solomon is still one of those books preachers rarely preach on, and it is an oddity in scripture since it defies all biblical genre. It is not prophetic or wisdom literature. It is not history. There is no mention of God anywhere. At best it is a duet in which a groom and bride celebrate their love for one another. A book that was, according to feminist scholars, penned by two lovers in search of divine oneness.
That describes the English version. The original Hebrew captures all the nuances and word plays that would even make Hugh Hefner blush. No wonder ancient rabbis considered it “forbidden.”
Yet, it was included in the Bible by the skin (no pun intended) of its teeth, so the Church had to sanitize it somehow. Medieval scholars found that interpreting the Song as an allegory (a spiritual message) of God’s love for the church was the best option. It wasn’t about physical romance after all, they argued, and a long, thankful sigh could be heard from parents everywhere.
With that taboo out of the way, the Song became rather valuable during the medieval era. One scholar, Origen, wrote a ten-volume commentary on it. French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, preached some 86 sermons on the first two chapters alone. Jewish mystic Rabbi Akiva compared the book to the Holy of Holies and argued that it sufficed as a temporary sacred place for long as the temple remained unavailable.
Whether the book was a literal duet or an allegory of God’s love, there is still a fresh word in this amazingly contemporary book. It’s dialogue expresses a type of faithfulness and fidelity for which we all long. In our fly-by-night sex-saturated society, a fresh poem that speaks to God’s eternal love might be the type of gospel-message we need these days.
Come to think of it, there is something in the Song for everyone. For married couples, its rich vocabulary has the power to ignite the embers of intimacy and fan the flame of passionate romance from an earlier time.
The Song reminds singles of their faithful attention to a God who comes to all of us as Spouse. It also celebrates the type of purity that St. Paul championed in his letters to the Corinthians.
For people who despair over love lost, the Song resonates with broken hearts and the pursuit for wholeness: “Upon my bed,” the Song’s bride wrote in grief, “I sought him whom my soul loves…and found him not” (3:2).
For all of us, the Song can bring us some good seat-squirming experiences now and then as it reminds us just how intimately God longs to be with each of us. Allow our love for Him to be the second part of the duet in all our hearts.