Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 9, 2017
Scripture: Song of Solomon 2:8-13
There seems to be some mistake. Somebody’s gone and printed some verses from the Song of Solomon in our worship bulletin…that can’t be right! We Baptists don’t actually read the Song of Solomon, much less lay it out there in plain sight where just anyone can see it.
Most of you have been around Baptist churches for most of your Christian experience. Show of hands: how many of you–over however many years you’ve been attending a Baptist church—how many of you have heard three or more sermons based on Song of Solomon?
How many of you have heard at least two sermons based on Song of Solomon?
Has anyone here heard at least one sermon from Song of Solomon? I can’t recall hearing a one when I was growing up. It seems like something I would preach from, but honestly I can’t really recall doing so.
But, here it is in our bulletin, so I suppose we should go ahead and read it, Song of Solomon, chapter two, verses 8-13.
8 The voice of my beloved!
Behold, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle,
or a young stag.
Behold, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11 for lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
Now, honestly, when I read that last snippet, “Arise, come, my darling; beautiful one, come with me.”, and then I said, “This is the Word of the Lord”, didn’t it feel just a wee bit odd to respond, “Thanks be to God!”?
“Arise, come, my darling….O beautiful one, come [away] with me.” Oh, yes! Thanks be to God! I suppose it depends on who’s doing the asking, doesn’t it?
It is a challenge to us, reading this part of our Bible. We’re really not sure what to make of it, and that’s been true for generations and generations of people who claim this Bible book as their Scripture, for both Jews and Christians.1
Even the editors of the lectionary couldn’t bring themselves to recommend Song of Solomon as our primary Old Testament reading for today; instead, they listed it as an alternate reading. But, really, do you want to hear yet another sermon from Genesis, when you’ve Song of Solomon waiting in the wings?
Part of our befuddlement over this book is that it doesn’t mention God anywhere. It does, however, get quite explicit in mentioning other things that most of us would blush to have read aloud in church. The verses from chapter 2 are pretty mild stuff. Chapter 4 is where Song of Solomon gets quite interesting as this young man begins describing his beloved, starting with her hair and working his way on down:
“Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold you are beautiful!
Your eyes are 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,
all of which bear twins, and not one among them are bereaved.”
Which was a very tactful way of admiring the fact that his girlfriend’s got all her teeth; “none is bereaved”, not a tooth is missing in her smile, which probably was more the exception than the rule back then
He continues, “Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your mouth is lovely….your neck is like….” (verse 3-4) and so forth and so on he goes, waxing poetic about the virtues of his beloved’s beautiful…what? Her beautiful body. Well, that can’t be right, can it? Here, in the Bible, in the Old Testament of all places?
Part of the problem with this book is just what words can you get away with in church when we’re talking about the human body? The human body not as “the temple of the Holy Spirit”, as Paul describes it over in 1 Corinthians chapter 6, verse 19. That’s pretty safe. The human body not as a source of affliction and temptation and all sorts of bad things, as recounted in more Bible verses than we have time to list.
But, how dare we speak of the human body as these two persons here in our present Scripture speak of one another’s bodies and of the feelings they engender in one another? What circumlocutions or euphemisms can the preacher get away with? We know the risks that come with what I shall be calling for the rest of this sermon, “Song of Solomon behavior”. That will be my circumlocution of choice.
To get right to it: “Song of Solomon behavior” is known to be the leading cause of babies. As we all know, babies result in a lifelong condition called parenthood, which is a chronic condition often accompanied by headaches, heartburn, and insomnia; over the course of a lifetime, parenthood can be a very expensive condition to treat.
We in the church are very concerned that we not say anything which might pave the way for unintended parenthood, especially among our youth. So, anything we say about “Song of Solomon behavior” boils down to…it’s a beautiful and marvelous gift from God, but let us not speak of it again—remember: Jesus is in the room and watching you, so, just DON’T GO THERE!
These two young lovebirds here seem to have no concern whatsoever about their “Song of Solomon behavior”. They are simply, and totally, and rapturously, in love with one another, and getting away somewhere off by themselves seems pretty much to be the plot-line driving this story.
The ancient rabbis and our ancient Christian teachers found a convenient work-around for all this. These very graphic love songs, they said, are a collection of extended metaphors. The rabbis said they were metaphors for God’s love for Israel. The early Christian preachers said Song of Solomon’s words tell us of Christ’s love for the Church.
In other words, this Book has nothing to do with you and me personally except in our capacity as church members. Somehow, I don’t see that explanation as being particularly helpful. Are we really ready to hear these words as God’s words of love for us? There are two aspects of the Bible that to me lend credence to this idea that Song of Solomon somehow conveys God’s love for us.
The first aspect is this: it’s how the prophets would, in effect, flip Song of Solomon on its head. Using language as graphic as these here, the prophets often described God as a betrayed spouse and God’s people as the ones doing the betraying.2 In the hands of the prophets it’s as if these two lovers in Song of Solomon got married and then one did the other a really bad turn, and all these words of rapturous love got turned inside out and then spat back in the face of the betrayer.
So, yes, I suppose if the prophets could draw on all the ugliness of human love betrayed using sexually graphic terms, then it’s also conceivable this Wisdom writer could draw upon all the beauty and rapture of human love when that love is fulfilled, also using equally sexually suggestive language to convey in human terms, God’s love for us.
The problem for us, though, is that we as people of faith are often ill-equipped to incorporate the fullness of “Song of Solomon” emotion within our own personal lives. When it comes to “Song of Solomon behavior”, we know shame; we know guilt; we know regret; we know lives complicated and constrained and even derailed, all because of “Song of Solomon” train wrecks we have experienced first-hand or we have witnessed in the lives of our families or friends.
How then can we even begin to conceive of this reservoir of human sexual experience as having anything to teach us about God’s love, about Christ’s love, in any meaningful way? Yet, here it is in the heart of our Bible.
Then, there is this second aspect of the Bible: what of the Incarnation?
What of the Incarnation, our central Christian teaching that God came in the fulness of human flesh, in the life experience of Jesus of Nazareth.
Did Jesus ever experience the depths of these “Song of Solomon” passions in his own life? Without sin, without shame, without regret? Could the source of Jesus’ vitality for life, his sheer joy of life, his celebratory experience of life that drew in the notorious sinners even as he repelled the rigorously righteous…could the source of such radiant human vigor have resided in what Jesus knew from his own “Song of Solomon” sensuality? It’s difficult for us to even form such thoughts of Jesus, much less to explore its meaning.
We as an institution, we the Church as Christ’s bodily expression on this earth, we’ve got some serious explaining to do of how we’ve become the chief censures of human, “Song of Solomon”, love. We’ve got such serious catching up to do in our understanding of this miracle we call “the Incarnation”.
It’s hard to be a sexual being, friends, in this fallen world of ours and of God’s. We all have shame and guilt and regret. We have been victims, and we have made victims, through our sexual passions. None of us get healed and set free in an instant from such wounds. For many, sexual injury is a re-occurring wound very slow to mend.
Our difficulties lie not in God, who has no reluctance to forgive us where we need forgiving, nor do our difficulties reside in God’s unwillingness to mend us from our injured minds, souls, or bodies where we need such mending. Our difficulty lies in our denial of what this Song of Solomon and so much else of Scripture teaches us: God created us to be sexual beings.
Our sexuality are tempestuous waters to navigate, for sure. They are deep waters in which many have drowned, or which many have avoided by beaching themselves safely on dry land. Neither of these choices are God’s best for us.
Sins of the flesh are never simply “flesh wounds”. They strike at the very core of our being. Don’t let your own failures or the failures of others shut you off from what is central to your human identity. If you need counsel, find good, healthy counsel. If you need confession, find a trustworthy confessor. Sexual healing is the proverbial journey of a thousand miles that begins with a first step, and then another, and then another.
As a congregation, discover how you can help one another into this part of God’s truth for us. Our failure to teach one another rightly about the “Song of Solomon experience” is a continuing failure of faith and witness. We are partners with the Creator and Redeemer God in such love as this. We are followers of the Incarnate Christ, and we must do better.
Song of Solomon…it makes for some interesting reading.
1 Exegetical notes from Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 192-195.
2 see, e.g., Jeremiah 2:1-3, 20-25, 32-36; 3:1-5; Ezekiel 16:1-63; Hosea 2:1-16; 3:1-3.