As a young teenager I could always count on Song of Songs when the preacher grew long-winded. I didn’t have a very sophisticated understanding of the imagery in the book. But it didn’t take much for my adolescent mind to appreciate in new ways the provocative images: clusters of grapes, browsing fawns, mountains of myrrh. Well, you get the point.
How bizarre that a book like Song of Solomon is in our bible. It heaves with passion. And certainly our bibles shouldn’t be heaving. Who is this unidentified woman who leaps onto the scene demanding, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth?” My mother warned me about women like this.
[Above: Song of Solomon, Sir William Russell Flint]
The history of Song of Songs interpretation is fascinating in its own right. There seems to be a pattern for theologians. At some point, typically toward the end of their lives, a commentary on Song of Songs is requisite for their bona fides as a theologian. Saint Thomas Aquinas is case-in-point.
One matter stands to the fore in the history of Song of Songs interpretation in the church and synagogue. These ancient interpreters understood the Song as first and foremost an allegory of the relationship between Israel and Yahweh or the Church and Jesus Christ. They did not understand this book as a primer on spicing up one’s marital bedroom.
Following the trend of theologians from the church’s past, Robert Jenson has written a commentary on Song of Songs at the end of his theological career. I commend it to you as a highly insightful and interesting piece of theological interpretation. Jenson follows in the wake of the ancients by understanding the Song as a Christian allegory in the first instance. Where Jenson goes his own creative way is in his allowing of the relationship between Jesus and Church as described in the Song to have its place in the shaping of human, sexual love as well. The two are necessarily fitted the one to the other. “[I]f,” Jenson suggests, “human sexuality can be an analogue of divine-human love, it must somehow be correlate to, or able to be correlate to, that love.”
Jenson is quick to remind us that on this side of eternity we may not be able to know how our “penultimate love is like God’s.” But we can be assured that it is. As Bernard of Clairvaux warns, if one wants to grasp what he reads, then let him love. “Whereas someone who does not love will hear or read this song of love in vain.”
The Christian tradition understands humans as lovers. Are you a lover or a fighter? I can hear my tough uncles asking me this question as a kid. The Song of Songs would say, I’m the latter only when necessity demands it. But I’m first and foremost a lover. Because God is too.
So, you lovers reading this blog, love away. When we enter into the passionate heaving of marital love or walk the emotional mine-field inevitably associated with this love, we enter into the very love of God himself. What a marvelous and mysterious wonder.
If you’ll excuse me, I need to call my wife.