The Song of Love

I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me. Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love.
Song of Solomon 7:10-12
Painting: La Reine de Saba apres Marc Chagall (The Queen of Sheba in the Imitation of Marc Chagall) by William Frank Bellais, watercolor and ink, 12×16.

Have you wondered why the Song of Solomon is in the Bible? If you read it through and not in small sections of verses, you may find the language and description of love between a man and a woman shocking. You might say to yourself, “This is in the Bible?” The words and descriptons can be, as they say, “explicit.” Instead of being shocked, some find the book a beautiful love poem despite the erotic tone of the words. If this book is probably something you would not want children to read, why is it in the Scriptures?

Actually, the text, among the poetic scrolls regarded as Scripture by the ancient Rabbis of Jerusalem, almost did not make it into the Hebrew canon of the Bible.[1] The belief among the Rabbis was that King Solomon wrote the poetic book. In the Hebrew Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, the book is the Song of Songs and begins with these words, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” (1:1). However, scholarship now places the book in the period of King Hezekiah the King of Judah who witnessed the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in the sixth century before Christ. Further, there is no physical evidence of King Solomon’s reign[2]; nevertheless, If Solomon actually reigned over Israel, scholars have put him in the ninth century before Christ.

The second century in the current era debate among the Rabbis centered on whether the book actually met a Scriptural standard. The rabbinical questions were, “Is it a love poem about a man’s desire and love for a woman? Alternatively, does it have deeper meaning?” The rabbinical decision is that the Song of Songs has a deeper meaning. It is the story of God’s love for Israel and the words used demonstrate the intimacy of that love. The argument is that the word Solomon actually refers to God, as in the word Shalom in Hebrew refers to God’s peace.

In the second chapter of the book, according to the rabbinical interpretation, God invites Israel to arise from its doldrums, its winter-like depression, and become the people that God intends for them to be. One of the more prominent Rabbis stated that the book is the “Holy of Holies”[3] of the ancient texts and reading it frivolously is improper. Thus, in the Hebrew context, the Song of Solomon is a story of God’s love for Israel.

In the Christian context, the idea that this is a poem about God’s love for Israel also prevails but is now extended to mean the Church. However, the Christian reading acknowledges that this is a poem of sensual love between a man and a woman. Married love, acknowledged as good and proper in the earliest of Christian texts notably in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, compares the Church as the Bride of Christ.[4]

My career as a priest and mental health therapist has included many hours of pre-marital counseling and couples counseling. Often during these sessions, I suggested that the couples read the Song of Solomon together in close proximity to one another and instead of watching television or having a spat. My hope, the people involved could see the warmth of love coming through the intimacy of the words and the spirit of their meaning.

Love, of course, is the meaning of the Song of Solomon. Additionally I find that love is the theme of the Scriptures generally. The difficulty in making my case about the Scriptures in a general sense is that there does not seem to be much love in many sections of the Hebrew Bible. That is because the stories are about the rise of Israel, the use or misuse of power, and the political mishaps of the characters involved. Regardless, the Scriptures are about love. God’s love for creation (God sees creation and calls it good), God’s love for Israel and the Divine calling of the people of Israel to be more than mere creatures of the earth, and ultimately God’s love for all of humanity in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Jesus points out that there is no room in this love for human-made precepts. If the rules do not demonstrate God’s love and are used only to control the people the rules are of no value. There is no love in legislation only a concern to keep society standardized.

Love, of course, is an encompassing and overused word in some circumstances. Faith, demonstrated by actions usually tells us that the person demonstrating faith through action is devoted to the cause to which he or she is faithful. We can state that love is even more demonstrable by what one does rather than what one says. Love expressed between people is, to coin a phrase, a verb. The acts of love are not descriptive; that is, to say someone or something is lovely does not convey love. Lovely conveys beauty, charm, or a comely quality but does not tell us much about how an individual behaves. Something other than a person can be lovely. Nevertheless, love can be an adjective. Examples can be, for the love of God and for the love of country.

In one of the discussion on the meaning of the word Love, I found this,[5]

In English, love refers to a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes, ranging from pleasure (“I loved that meal”) to interpersonal attraction (“I love my partner”). “Love” may refer specifically to the passionate desire and intimacy of romantic love, to the sexual love of eros, to the emotional closeness of familial love, to the platonic love that defines friendship, or to the profound oneness or devotion of religious love, or to a concept of love that encompasses all of those feelings. This diversity of uses and meanings, combined with the complexity of the feelings involved, makes love unusually difficult to consistently define, compared to other emotional states.

The overall best definition of love is, “the unselfish loyal and beneficial concern for another.”[6]  James in his Letter to the Church[7] instructs that religion, based in love, is pure. He describes this love as care for widows, orphans, and remaining unstained by the world. The stain of the world is selfishness, avarice, and thoughtless personal behavior. Therefore, pure religion is best expressed in term of unselfish loyal and beneficial concern for another.

The Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs (either title is correct) is a message of behavior. We can see in it Divine behavior and human behavior. In either view of the message of the book, we know love abounds. Love came in creation and God saw it as good. The love expressed to us through Jesus lifts the human spirit to a new level of dignity, and finally the love we express for others is as that primeval love—it is good.

[1] Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006),The Jewish Religion: A Companion, OxfordUniversity Press.

[2] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Free Press, 2001.

[3] Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006), op.cit.

[4] Chapter 5, The Letter to the Ephesians

[5] Wikipedia entry, “Love”.

[6]   Eric h Fromm, The Art of Loving, Harper Perennial, Original English Version, 1956.

[7]James 1:27.

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