A sermon by Rev. Douglas Olds
Don’t look for someone to complete you, look instead for someone you can love completely.
[Here is the sole lectionary selection from the Song of Songs in the Reformed Christian church calendar. I invite you to sometime spend 20 minutes to read the full text of the Song of Songs:]
[Song of Songs 2.8-13]
8 Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattice.
10 My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me.
11 See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”
The Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon) has been a curiosity to Biblical readers for millennia. There is no direct mention of God (save 8.6), and its unabashed sexuality and forward female voice was elided by the ancient ascetics and later churchmen. In order to downplay the physicality and bring forward theology, premodern commentators have primarily read the Song as allegory. That is, the Song of Songs is read as a love poem between Israel’s God and his people, or later, Christ’s love for his church.
Allegory interprets the physical images of the poem as representing a non-empirical--non-tangible-- reality of the Soul or Heaven. Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) applied allegory to his interpretation of the Song of Songs “as a certain machine” to elevate the soul to God, finding God where no mention of God exists. In 590, he noted his non-theological bias against human sexuality in the Song when he decreed that married couples who mixed pleasure with procreation “transgressed the law.” Roland Murphy in The Anchor Bible Dictionary notes,
[The] traditional interpretation of the Song in the Christian community was motivated by certain ascetic and spiritual views that prevented a proper understanding of the literal historical sense. Yet the Song became one of the most popular books in the Middle Ages, when it was accorded more “commentaries” than any other OT book. In the 12th century alone, there were some thirty commentaries written on the [Song]. Outstanding among these is the work of Bernard of Clairvaux: Eighty-six sermons delivered over a period of eighteen years, 1135–1153…Bernard had the knack of recognizing the experience of love which is in the Song. He called it “the book of experience” (Sermon 3, 1), and for him the greatest experience is love: “Love is alone sufficient by itself; it pleases by itself, and for its own sake. It is itself a merit, and itself its own recompense. It seeks neither cause, nor consequences, beyond itself. It is its own fruit, its own object and usefulness. I love, because I love; I love, that I may love” (Sermon 83, 4).
As contrasted with an allegorical reading, modern interpreters have tended to recover the Song’s historical sense. It is read now as a literal poem of sexual expression and longing. My friend Annette Schellenberg at San Francisco Theological Seminary has proposed that the Song of Songs was a performed drama at ancient Jewish festivals. Modern commentators differ as to the structure of the poems making up the Song of Songs: who is speaking when and to whom.
However, this literal historical and dramatic approach helps us recover the dialogue of a man and woman with mutual physical desire. In this recovered historical reading, we may note the Garden metaphors and images, so that God, even if unnamed, might be approving of this mutuality and physical desire for egalitarian closeness that harkens back to the creation of Eden and the male and female Adam and Eve. Unlike in the rest of the Old Testament where sexuality is linked with the need for posterity and procreation, in both the pre-fall Eden and in the Song of Songs, physical closeness and mutuality between the sexes is idealized.
The woman’s love is not something to be taken nor even earned—it is given freely, mutually. It is a message for our current age of taking advantage or commercializing love for sex.
The Song of Songs may indeed be the drama of physical flourishing and mutuality of an idealized community—a lush primeval Garden outfitted by the Creator for the freely chosen enjoyment of its denizens. If Prof. Schellenberg is correct that this drama was acted out in festivals, it might be seen as a reenactment of this innocent and childlike delight in the Creation where sex is unencumbered by violence, manipulation and one-sidedness. This innocent and childlike delight in the creation might very well honor the Creator, so we might arrive at a more historical than allegorical theology, a theology that appreciates sexuality as a gift rather than a temptation to sin.
What is the nature of the love relationship in the Song of Songs? As Murphy noted, ascetic and flesh-denying practices of both Jews and Christians could not endorse the open expression of sexual metaphors, freely given, such as the Song involves. And yet as Bernard so compellingly noted, God is love and thus clearly community endorsed love is to be discerned in this text canonized by religious communities even as sex- and flesh-denying as the Dead Sea Scrolls fellowship at Qumran. If the historical is to be preferred to the allegorical (as I think it must), how do we find God in the normative expression of physical love found in the Song of Songs?
Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1096–1141), who was an older contemporary of Bernard of Clairvaux, asks that very question in his treatise, “Of the Nature of Love.” He claims, “There are, then, two streams that issue from the fount of love, cupidity and charity… [L]ove [is] a single movement of the heart, is of its nature one and single, yet is divided in its act. When it moves inordinately that is, whither it should not it is called cupidity; but, when it is rightly ordered, it is termed charity.” Hugh is making a claim that there is a rightly ordered love act and a wrongly ordered love act. He is reading the Latin Bible’s uses of the words caritas [Greek: agapē ] and eros. He is distinguishing the two.
Classical scholars I’ve spoken with tend to deny a distinction between agapē and eros, and I believe that in the pagan literature there might be little distinction. Socrates in Plato’s Symposium has it that erotic love aids the soul’s ascent toward immortality, and it might be argued by them that Christian love does the same. Yet the Platonic eros fulfills the self’s desire.
In the moral literature of the Old and New Testaments, the writers are wholly concerned with the practicalities of love of neighbor regardless of the self's desire. When Christian writers speak of eros I believe they are calling us to acknowledge the excellence or baseness of our love of things and qualities, especially whether it is focused on the self or on others. Hugh has it that love directed where it should not is cupidity/eros. Love that is other directed, that does unto others what we would have them do for us, is charity/ agapē.
Jesus in the Gospel John 13.34 commands his followers: ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους, Love Others. There is not a sense of desire for qualities or things outside of mere otherness, and this is rather a servant-love. Charity.
Returning to the Song of Songs, I believe that erotic desire is clearly in view. But that erotic desire is not a modern eroticism. There are three aspects to the erotic love of the Song of Songs. First, it is mutual. Second, it is other-directed. Relatedly, it is not narcissistic, which is self-directed and concerned with fulfilling the self's objectives. Thus I believe the Song's desire is distinct from Platonic eros. The Song’s desire is a way station in the development of an ethic of agapē. The love in the Song of Song’s is not what Hugh would call cupidity, a desire for what should not be desired, but rather the desire is for the primeval God-given qualities of the desired lover. The metaphors of creation and of peaceful and harmonious communal life in the Garden thus locate the desire in God’s peace and wholeness. Reading the Song of Songs has us meditate on the lovers’ desire for noble qualities in the other, and not on some base qualities or characteristics.
Note, too, there is no sense of that modern affliction, narcissism, in view of the Song of Songs. At one point, the lover notes the object of her affection likewise desires her. But she shows no inordinate thrill at this prospect, other than idealizing the mutuality of desire, clearly a divine norm for love.
So much of modern erotic desire fulfills the narcissist’s craving. Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism notes that the decline of the 19th C family was associated with disintegration of personality and the desire for constant admiration and commercial demand. The movie Jerry Maguire had the line, “you complete me.” The erotic desire is on personal fulfillment, akin to the pagan and Platonic ideal of eros. “You complete me” is not in view in the Song of Songs. Seeing myself in the lover's eyes is not in view of the Song of Songs. Concerned with commerce and market relationships of supply and demand, the modern narcissist commercializes sex and derives self-worth from the superordinate wage which supposedly measures social esteem and market demand. The social Darwinist as Don Juan does likewise, deriving self-esteem from money and from a bevy of lovers admiring his sexual "fitness."
The Song of Songs does not have such commercial or market aspects to sexuality. The woman is not given in marriage by her parents, but freely chooses her beloved. We indeed encounter an ancient’s understanding of what erotic love is inside a Garden of beauty and sufficiency (which is not to say glut or hoard). And in that ideal Garden space, love is other directed and mutual. This is a world in which marriage's highest values are loyalty and care taking, not personal fulfillment or the self's happiness. Such a love mirrors the divine love, the ideal desire for what is beautiful, elegant, and good. Until we reach that state, Jesus gives us a servant’s task: ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους, Love Others. Don’t desire your self's physical beauty or attempt to find fulfillment in the other’s desire for you or your work product, but serve others as the Kingdom of God is being made anew in your virtues.
The Love desire in view in the Song of Songs thus might be seen as the highest form of human love, a correction to the pagan sexual desire. It is the love shown by the woman who poured pure nard on Jesus’ feet, unconcerned with its scarcity, unconcerned with its interpretation by onlookers. It is a lavish and sensual act readied by virtuous servant-love. It brings harmony and solidarity to the family, neighborhood, and nation.
The Bible has a deep ethic to make love and not war.
The Bible has a deep ethic to make love and not war.
The Bible is telling us in the Song that when lovers are happy, the community flourishes in the guidance of its God.
Don’t look for someone to complete you, look instead for someone you can love completely. This is the kind of love in view in the Song of Songs and for the adored in Psalm 45. May we all be privileged to glimpse this festive, selfless love from our lover. And may we all have the grace to convey it to our lover as well. AMEN.