Collect for Trinity XII
AUTHOR and Giver of all good things, graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion, nourish us in all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Song of Solomon, 2, Vv 8 - 13
James 1, Vv 17 - 27
St Mark 7, Vv 1 - 8 & 14 - 15 & 21 - 23
There are only three references in the Propers in the Revised Common Lectionary, the readings used by many of the worldís Christian churches in their corporate worship, to the book called the Song of Solomon. This book is also known by the title Song of Songs or simply as Canticles, from the Latin translation, Canticum canticorum. The portion from chapter two that we heard read as our Old Testament lesson is repeated in the first week of July in Year A and another short passage is read on the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene on the 22nd day of July. Perhaps we can spend a few moments this morning examining this rather strange book, a book of just eight short chapters and one hundred and seventeen verses.
As we observed a few weeks ago, the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, is divided into the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Some scholars further divide the Writings into the Former Writings, The Psalms, The Proverbs and the Book of Job; the Latter Writings, the Books of Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles; and the five so-called Megilloth, or five scrolls, the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. These five books were appointed to be read by Jews on special religious occasions. The Song of Songs was associated with Passover and Ruth with the Festival of Weeks; a festival that followed on immediately from Passover. Lamentations was read at the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem in 597BC and Ecclesiastes was read at the Feast of Tabernacles to remind prosperous Israel not to forget their God. Finally, Esther was read at the Feast of Purim, a post-exilic festival commemorating the deliverance of the Jews in Babylon from certain death.
The Hebrew syntax of the title, Song of Songs, indicates that this is the loveliest song; in the same way that Holy of Holies means the most holy. It is a collection of poetry on the theme of human love. Parts of it are considered by some to be rather erotic and the polysemy, the multiple meanings that can be attributed to its phrases, make the text both evocative and enigmatic. As well as inspiring a great many Jewish commentaries The Song of Songs has played a fascinating role in Western culture. One scholar has described it as, Ďthe most frequently interpreted book of medieval Christianityí. It has been described as a mainstay of asceticism and an impetus for mysticism.
Traditionally this work was thought to have been written by King Davidís successor, his son Solomon, the son of Bathsheba. Solomon is supposed to have composed three Biblical works: The Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. These, it is thought, belonged to three phases of his life. Thus the Song of Songs was believed to have been composed when he was a young man, because when a man is young he is supposed to compose songs. When he grows older he makes sententious remarks, as are found in Proverbs, and when he becomes an old man he speaks only of the vanity of things. However, analysis of this work illustrates the minimal role that Solomon plays in the text. Only three verses mention him and he is more likely to have been the object of the poem, not its composer. One school of thought suggests that a woman poet may have written Song of Songs. An analysis shows that a womanís voice is heard in over half of the verses. Another opinion is that the woman in the Song is the perfect woman, perfect as seen from the male perspective, the ideal dream of most men and thus a fabrication by a man or men. Early Jewish interpretations of the Song of Songs were mostly allegorical. They begin with the idea that the man mentioned in the text is God, while the woman is Israel. Thus what appears on the surface to be a story about sensual love between a man and a woman is actually about the love that God has for his chosen people. A later reading of the work sees the man as Solomon and the woman as Wisdom. Wisdom, or Sophia, is generally given a female persona in ancient writings. This association with Wisdom parallels Solomonís request to God to have the wisdom to discern between good and evil when God asked him, Ďwhat should I give you?í
So much for the background and history of this book. What, if any, have been Christian reactions? The Christian community, of course, grew out of Judaism. It seems therefore not unreasonable to suppose that early Christian analysts would adopt similar thinking. The symbolism surrounding God and Israel became the relationship between Christ and his church. This was certainly the interpretation given by Hippolytus in about AD200, one of the first Christian commentators of this ancient book. A handful of years later Origen, an early ascetic, believed that Christian spirituality entailed a denigration of fleshly concerns. This viewpoint obviously impacted upon his understanding of the Song of Songs. Origen saw this book as an epithalamium, or wedding song. Although he clearly de-sexed the ancient text, and saw in it little profit to the reader in its actual words, yet his writings on it were prolific. He wrote no less than ten volumes of commentary as well as a number of homilies. Origenís influence was immense and his writings persisted through the Middle Ages. One scholar has reported that, between the fourth and eleventh centuries there were no less than thirty-two commentaries on Song of Songs, compared with only nine on Paulís epistle to the Romans and six on his letter to the Galatians. In the fourth century both Jerome, famous for the Latin Vulgate Bible, and Augustine, who gave us our essential understanding of the Holy Trinity, both agreed that the Song of Songs anticipated the love of Christ for his church, the book having been written several centuries before the birth of Jesus.
The last of the early commentators I will mention to you is Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote in the twelfth century. Between 1135 and 1153 Bernard wrote eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs. Even in so doing, he only got up to the first verse of chapter three! Thatís about two sermons per verse! He addressed his sermons to those who were, he thought, spiritually mature; that is, to the monks of his Cistercian order, not the common people in the church pews. He suggested that even Religious could not benefit from an understanding of the Song of Songs until they had mastered the other two Solomonic books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Thus they must despise the world and themselves in order to benefit from Bernardís constructive lessons on building up their mystical union with God. There is, of course, a dark side to this traditional, sexless interpretation of Song of Songs. Nowhere is this illustrated more vividly than in Bernardís determination to see Peter Abelard removed from the church for his love of Eloise, even to suggest that Abelard should lose his life for his love of a woman. Bernardís rhetoric is perhaps a timely reminder that the unnatural repression of sexual love can lead to frightful consequences.
Martin Luther, to bring us forward to the sixteenth century, wrote a series of lectures on Song of Songs. Luther rejected the allegorical approach of earlier commentators. He thought that this book illustrated the custom of the nobility to talk about their personal matters in highly figurative language. In Song of Songs, King Solomon was talking about his intimate relationship with God and its effect on his reign over Godís people, all expressed through poetic imagery.
We must conclude by asking why such an explicitly erotic book is contained within the canon of the Bible, a Bible that has importance and significance for Christians as well as Jews. Perhaps I should respond by asking what sort of book the Bible would be without Song of Songs. Without it both church and synagogue would be left with nothing but entirely negative words and laws about such an important part of our lives. Sexuality is a major aspect of human experience and God in his wisdom speaks to us through the poetry of the Song, both to encourage us and to warn us about its power in our lives. Tremper Longman, in his commentary, writes that the church has a tendency to make the topic of sexuality a taboo. It is rarely spoken of or discussed in the context of Christian fellowship. The Song of Songs provides a platform for frank talking about sex among Godís people. Longman observes that Christian leaders rarely, if ever, teach or preach on the Song of Songs.
The primary intention of the author of the Song of Songs was to address issues of human love and relationships. Love is mutual, exclusive, total and beautiful. To deny, ignore or suppress it is to distort the message of the book and to misunderstand Godís love for his people. We must recognise that the whole canon of the Bible, all of its content, is relevant to the modern church, to modern Christians and to modern society. I warmly commend Song of Songs to your further study.
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