Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Expository Notes on the Song of Songs

Something else I've been working on, which I thought I would post. As the text indicates, it is one in a series, in fact the last of three.
As we look at the Song of Songs, the outstanding challenge is to find the Song’s theological centre — what has the Song got to do with God and with the great theological themes of the Bible?
To answer this, I want to take our minds back to thinking about the Song’s genre — what kind of book is it?
I said in my first talk that it belongs in the genre of Wisdom literature — works in the Bible that basically look at the meaning of life, what life is all about and what the godly life consists of.
And here, the Song’s mention of Solomon performs a very important function, for — whether or not Solomon had anything to do with the authorship, and whether or not he is the key character it draws the thoughts of the reader not just to a person but to an era.
In 1 Kings 4:20-22 Solomon’s reign is identified as the ‘golden age’ of Israel:
Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy. Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.
1 Kings 10:21-22 emphasises the practical results:
All King Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the House of the Forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver, it was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon. For the king had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.
And thus 1 Kings 4:25 presents a picture of contentment:
And Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.
A ‘rose-tinted’ view
This picture in this part of King’s is deliberately presented through ‘rose-tinted’ spectacles. We also read in 1 Ki 5:13 that,
King Solomon conscripted labourers from all Israel —thirty thousand men.
Later this formed the basis of the complaint brough to Solomon’s son and heir, Rehoboam, by Jeroboam on behalf of the people in 1 Kings 12:4:
Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.
But we are encouraged to think of Solomon’s reign as a ‘golden age’, even though, realistically it was not entirely golden. And this has important implications for the Wisdom literature.
The ‘end’ of the Exodus
In terms of biblical theology, the reign of Solomon, and specifically the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple, marks the end of the Exodus.
This is the point at which the wanderings of the Ark come to an end — it finds its permanent home in the place God promised would be built for his name to dwell. At the same time, this is why God brought the people out of Egypt — so that they would come into their own land, where they could serve him “without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all [their] days” (cf Lk 1:74-75).
And yet, as the ‘wisdom’ books survey the situation in which Israel finds itself, it turns out that the ‘golden age’ is, as they say, ‘not all that’. At one level, there is satisfaction, as the passages from 1 Kings suggest. At another level, however, many of life’s great questions are as imponderable as ever.
Thus, for example, as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes looks out from his palace at what life is like in Jerusalem under his rule, you can almost hear him ask, like Bob Geldof after the first Live Aid concert was over, “Is that it?”
Is this all we’ve been aiming for, all these years? Because if it is, then it does seem a bit of a let-down.
The Fruits of Salvation and the Hierarchy of Needs
And by its dedication to Solomon, the Song of Songs places itself in the same context and therefore can be claimed to address the same question: Is that it? Is this what we were aiming for?
The psychologist Abraham Maslow was famous for identifying a so-called ‘hierarchy of needs’. Our essential needs are air, water, food, shelter, sleep and so on. When these needs are met, however, we turn our attention to other needs — security, friendship, social belonging, status, entertainment, etc.
According to Maslow, we cannot attend to the ‘higher’ needs until the basic needs are met. But once those basic needs are met, we do indeed move on to the quest for othe things.
Israel’s history can similarly be thought of in terms of a ‘hierarchy’ of needs. At first, the need was sheer survival — a child for Abraham, then the threat posed by the Egyptians to the survival of the tribe. Later, there was the need of a land, and security from their enemies.
But by the ‘Golden Age’ of Solomon, these needs had clearly been met. The Israelites are “as many as the sand by the sea”. They have security and prosperity. God’s promises have been met, they have what they had hoped for.
In this situation, as Maslow says, our attention can finally turn to the highest of our needs, and so the Wisdom literature of the Bible, asks what life is, finally, all about. What do we need, for example, when we’ve got everything else? To this question, the Song of Songs gives a surprising answer.
The greatest is love
In 8:7 we read this:
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
According to the Song of Songs, love — specifically, the kind of love that the Song has been describing — is better than all one’s material blessings combined.
Compared with other blessings of life, this is the greatest blessing that one can receive in the providence of God.
The Death of the Beloved and the Death of Love
And yet — in the same breath, the Song of Songs recognizes that even this love cannot satisfy. 8:6 reads:
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame.
Within the present world order, this verse immediately forces us to recognize two potential threats to human love - the death of the beloved and the death of love. Love is strong as death — but death still happens. And jealousy —the the response to love threatened by an outsider —also happens.
And so towards the end of the Song, when we might have hoped for a note of ‘happily ever after’, we have a reminder that the death of the beloved, and even the possibility of the death of love —threatens the lovers.
But the Song has the threat of loss hanging over it generally. 3:1-4 and 5:2-8 particularly express this threat, but it is echoed in 1:7; 2:15; 6:1, 11-12, 13; 8:1-2 and 11.
And then there is the refrain found in 2:7 and repeated in 3:5 and 8:4:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field, that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please.
This suggests that even love itself may come at the wrong time, in the wrong place or (most frequently) for the wrong person. So whilst the Song on the one hand points to love between a man and a woman as the greatest blessing, it also points to the fragility of love. Love is great, but it is not ‘the answer’ for which the Wisdom literature looks.
The Land as Theological Contact
So what is ‘the answer’. Naturally, it is God, but how does the Song of Songs point us to God, if not via the approach of medieval allegory?
One of the things we may overlook in the Song of Songs is its references geography. Jerusalem is mentioned eight times, Zion once and there are a number of other geographical references:
1:14 En-Gedi; 2:1 Sharon; 3:9 Lebanon; 4:1 Mt Gilead; 4:8 Lebanon, Amana, Senir, Hermon; 4:11, 15 Lebanon; 6:4 Tirzah; 6:5 Gilead; 7:4 Heshbon, Bath Rabbim, Lebanon, Damascus; 7:5 Mt Carmel; 8:11 Baal Hamon.
These references may easily be missed, because we expect to see them, but also (paradoxically) because we are generally unfamiliar with the locations. On the one hand, they give us a vaguely ‘religious’ impression of the environment, as we expect in the Bible, but on the other hand, they stir no particular emotion.
Yet, as I said in the first week, the emotions are exactly what the Song of Songs should stir. And we ought to consider the possibility that there is meant to be an ‘emotionality’ arising precisely out of some of these geographical references.
This is even more so, I would suggest, when we consider some of the geographical references that do catch our eye.
The land as an image of the lovers
Take 4:1 and 4, for example:
Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. [...] Your neck is like the tower of David, built for an arsenal, whereon hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors.
Or 7:4-5,
Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus. Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel.
Michael Fox comments,
... the metaphors offer little information about how the lovers look, often seeming actually to interfere with the formation of a mental picture of them ... For me it is the imagery itself that makes the sharpest, most enduring impression, and I think that this is the author’s intention.
And I agree with him — we are meant to be thinking not just about the girl, but precisely about the thing to which she is being compared. But why is this, and what is the effect?
Love songs of places
 Let us consider, for a moment, some modern examples of love songs which use a similar device for their effect. What, for example, are these words talking about?
Summer journeys
To Niag’ra
And to other places aggra-
vate all our cares
We’ll save our fares
I’ve a cozy little flat in
What is known as old Manhattan
We’ll settle down
Right here in town.
We’ll have Manhattan
The Bronx and Staten Island, too
It’s lovely going through
The zoo.
So far, you’d hardly recognize it as a love song. But then we come to the chorus:
The great big city’s a wondrous toy
Just made for a girl and boy
We’ll turn Manhattan
Into an isle of joy.
It is a love song — but is it a song about love, or is it a song about a city? Well, of course, it is both. But the impact of the song depends to some extent on how well you know the reference points. Very few people this side of the Atlantic will know what street might possibly compare with Mott Street in July, for example.
And there is another level on which the song works, for the better you know these locations, the more the song will have other resonances — to other times, to other experiences and to other significances. To take an example, think of the different resonances produced in the older resident of England by these words (even though they have an American author!):
That certain night, the night we met,
there was magic abroad in the air,
There were angels dining at the Ritz
and a nightingale sang in Berkley Square.
Once again, any English speaker can appreciate the sentiment, but for certain people, of a certain generation, this is not just a love-song, it is an anthem!
A love song of a place
Now let us try to put ourselves in the position of an informed reader of the Song of Songs — someone for whom Lebanon, or the slopes of Mt Gilead, or Heshbon or, of course, Jerusalem are not just vague far off places, not even locations on a map, but icons of an era and symbols of an identity.
Michael Fox, mentioned earlier, takes the view that a major aim of the Song is to give a picture of the land as well as the lovers. And here, Harold Fisch argues in Poetry with a Purpose, the Song finds its point of contact with the rest of Scripture:
There is a kind of imaginative overspill, as the rapture of the lovers overflows into the sphere of geography, transforming the whole land into an object of love.
But this is not just any land — it is not Assyria, or Egypt, much less America or England. It is the land of God’s promise — and moreover, the land which God himself loves.
In Isaiah 62:4, speaking of the restoration of Israel, the prophet says:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My delight is in her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.
Fisch also observes how in 4:12-15 the Song, as he puts it, “becomes a poem about a garden rather than a girl”:
A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices — a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.
And Ellen Charry, in an article on the Song of Songs, comments, “By use of garden and plant metaphors, the erotic garden of the Song becomes the woman herself”.
Thus, I suggest, the language of the Song of Songs finds its meeting point with the rest of Scripture —and hence with the others themes of Scripture —in its geographical and metaphorical references to the land.
The Song of Songs focuses our thoughts on the land as a metaphor of love, and finds there a contanct point with the theology expressed elsewhere in Scripture of God as the lover of the land in which he has caused Israel to dwell.
Our own experience of the use of geographical references in love songs shows how they can evoke in us feelings of pride, patriotism, nostalgia and so on. My suggestion is that the theological message of the Song of Songs begins with similar associations that ought to form in our minds (and would form, if we were similarly ‘brought up on’ the geography of this land at its associated history).
As informed ‘singers’ of the Song of Songs, we would sing of love, and be reminded, perhaps of our own loves. But we would be subtly sidetracked into other meditations — on the time when Solomon ruled and the children of Israel were as many as the sand on the seashore, whilst every man dwelt under his vine and fig-tree.
And we would think, maybe, of what happened to the Covenant Promises of God, and whether Israel would rise again. And we would think, ultimately, of God’s proclaimed love for Israel — a love for which, the Song of Songs suggests, the experience of love between a man and a woman is, in some way a signpost and a foretaste.
In fact, if we understand the Song of Songs working at this level, then we find ourselves sharing the same conclusions as the medieval allegorists — that the Song of Songs is indeed about the love of God for his people and the love of Christ for the church.
The difference is that we have reached this point without needing to allegorize. The Song of Songs remains a song about (and for) human lovers. And it extols human love and its accompanying sexual expression as the greatest of divine blessings.
But at the same time, through its theme of loss (rather than through the mechanism of allegory), it pushes us beyond human love to ‘something more’ and, through the language of the land, points us to the Covenant of God and hence to the God of the Covenant.
And, as the rest of Scripture points out, he is our true divine lover preparing us for a marriage with him of which human love and marriage are but a pale reflection.

John Richardson
28 April 2010
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