Sunday, August 7, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Song of Solomon

Solomon, King of Israel, is known for his wisdom--most people have heard the story about him suggesting that a baby be cut in half so that he could determine who the baby's mother was. Solomon is also known for his endless riches, for building the glorious temple in Jerusalem, and for being the son of David. What he's less known for is his association with the book that bears his own name--the Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, depending on your Bible. It's generally agreed that the book is about Solomon courting and marrying a shepherdess (referred to as "the Shulamite," relating to her town of origin). It's an 8-chapter poem focused on romantic and erotic love, and it's often seen as being an allegory of God's love for his people.

The Song of Solomon has multiple speakers, almost like it's a stage play. The man, the woman, and the chorus take turns talking. Some Bibles try to separate the speakers and mark their lines as "Lover," "Beloved," and "Friends," but many versions don't bother with the distinctions, which can make it difficult to figure out who is speaking to whom at times. The pronouns help with discerning the man and woman, but sometimes there's a quick sentence where the POV changes to some 3rd party, and you have to watch carefully to note when the change occurs.

The many lovers' compliments that the couple exchanges may make some readers scratch their heads in confusion. This is supposed to be super-appealing love talk, but sometimes the metaphors and comparisons do not sound remotely delightful. The woman compares her beloved to "a roe or a young hart," (2:9) with roe and hart both meaning "deer". There is a culture gap at work here because these days, we don't often compare our favorite guy to a deer, even though the deer is a strong and graceful animal. Then the man has a series of even stranger compliments for the woman, one of which is "thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead" (4:1). You lost me at "goats", Solomon. But the important thing to understand about these phrases is that in the context of the culture and time period, they were very high compliments indeed. The man and woman are praising each other in very infatuated, descriptive terms and we can still understand the intent of their dialogue even when we can't quite relate to the specifics.

There's a lot of Ships-Passing in-the-Night going on in the Song of Solomon, where the man and woman are frequently separated and looking for each other, or dreaming of separation, or taking precautions against being parted. These people adore each other, and it's evident in every chapter. The final chapter concludes, "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it" (8:7) The love between two people is a powerful thing, and even the Bible notes its vehemence.

The Song of Solomon isn't often preached or taught in churches (at least the ones I've been to), partly because it contains an uncomfortable amount of references to physical love. The couple in this book are very blatant about praising each other's bodies and a bunch of their allusions and references can't be viewed as anything other than sexual. The "church" attitude toward sex tends to be very uneasy, and the general mindset seems to be "Don't have sex. Don't talk about. Don't think about it. YOU'RE THINKING ABOUT IT, AREN'T YOU?" But the reserved, proper church attitude and God's own attitude don't exactly line up. The Song of Solomon shows erotic love the way God meant it to be--something immensely enjoyable which benefits both people and strengthens their relationship, and which also occurs within the context of marriage. Reading the Song of Solomon is a real joy and relief if you happen to have met a lot of dried-up, miserable married people. It doesn't have to be like that! God's word shows us an excellent example of a married love that is very physical and is "as strong as death" (8:6).

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