The Greatest Songs
by Peter Paulsen
Peter M. Paulsen is Minister of the North Branch Reformed Church, Bridgewater, New Jersey. The following article was published in The Covenant Quarterly, Vol. LIV, No. 3 (August 1996), pp. 26-37.
Paul was a newly minted seminary graduate and not much acquainted with the ways of the world when he arrived at his congregation just in time to conduct the wedding of one of the parish’s leading daughters. He had done well in his Biblical Introduction courses and had exhibited real skill in his worship leadership. It seemed that, although this was a major social and ecclesiastical event, he was up to the challenge.
After careful liturgical planning, Paul decided to read a passage from the Song of Solomon. And who could blame him? Passages from the Song of Solomon have been read at weddings for centuries. This is passionate and wonderful poetry growing from the love of a woman for a man and a man for a woman. What could be more meaningful on a day when the total commitment of two people to one another is recognized and honored before God and the assembled witnesses?
Something was different on this day, however, and Paul in his naiveté was both a contributor to the disaster and totally unaware that it was coming. As he began with verse two of chapter one, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens love you," there was a noticeable stirring in the congregation. From their perspective, Paul was clearly enjoying this kind of poetry in a way no one expected. Perhaps it was just the warmth of the afternoon, or the excitement of the moment, or the clear affection which the happy couple held for each other, or perhaps it was that Paul had over-prepared for this reading or was finding some human joy for himself in the intoxicating words. Whatever it was the congregation was uncomfortable because the whole thing sounded so ‘smutty’ and their new pastor was apparently having a good time. The wedding is still remembered as a great success and the happy couple are still happy but Paul has never quite been able to shed the reputation of being a ‘sexy’ pastor nor has he been able to figure out what went wrong that day.
The more worldly wise among us know exactly what went wrong. Paul picked up on the fact that the Song of Solomon is an earthy, direct, heartfelt description of human love, apparently written by a woman. While sections of the Song may be read at weddings, most of us avoid the realities described by making this series of poems into a description of the way in which Jesus loves his Church. When we hear it read out loud we don’t think of a dark comely maiden running off with her lover for an afternoon tryst; we think of Christ coming to celebrate the Church in a situation in which its warts have become the occasion for descriptions of its glorious beauty.
Such an allegorical reading is not without its historical precedent. As far back as the gathering of the Targum, an interpretive paraphrase of the Old Testament in Aramaic, the Song of Solomon was described as a poetic history of God’s redeeming love for his people from the time of the Exodus down through the Exile and restoration. Christian scholars followed in the same vein making Christ the lover and protector of the Church. In the current era of privatized religion, this mode of interpretation has led to believing that the Song is basically about the way in which Jesus loves me as an individual, even to the point of overlooking my faults in order to praise my inner and outer beauty. Reading the Song at a wedding for many people is not so much a celebration of human love as it is a statement of God’s Providential care for the newlyweds as they begin the perilous journey of marriage. Clearly, the Song has been used in many allegorical interpretations. John of the Cross, for example, used the Song in the sixteenth century as the basis for a classic Spanish poem, "Spiritual Canticle," which he composed while he was in prison. In the Song he saw the promise of God’s redeeming love as the guarantee that the beauty, peace order, passion and fellowship of the Garden of Eden would be restored at the right time.
Scholarship suggests that the Song was not composed by King Solomon, despite the attribution in 1:1. The point of view is that of a woman and it describes a kind of unbridled rebellious passion which might only have been expressed by a woman, living in the controlled atmosphere of the royal court, perhaps even the court of Solomon himself. As such it is the only book in the Bible which has a woman’s voice. Even the books of Esther and Ruth which are written about women, are not the experiences or the feelings of the women themselves.
What if this was a book by a woman for women? What difference would that make in the way it is read and heard? Well, for one thing it would say that women are fully capable of feeling and expressing themselves in ways which go far beyond the boundaries created for them in a male-dominated society. In the Song, the woman describes the depths of her affections and frustrations and the ways she deals with them without regard to the conventions of her culture. This is a liberated woman who throws caution to the wind in pursuit of her lover and who relishes the attention that he bestows on her. Like any good poet she uses rich imagery - animal and plants and spices to describe her love, and the message is there for all who will read: this is not a woman who will be stopped in her pursuit of what she wants.
In the Song there are some indications that beyond the conventions of culture there are other obstacles that these young lovers must overcome. Renita Weems in The Women’s Bible Commentary finds reason to believe that there were racial or economic issues that made it difficult for this young couple to find marital bliss. Early in chapter 1 there is reference to the woman’s being black and later, in chapter 5, the Daughters of Jerusalem, a rather critical chorus, raise questions as to the appropriateness of this man for her.
If Dr. Weems is right, this book is in part a call to action against the societal restrictions and prohibitions which would keep lovers apart. It is a cry for an end to all the arbitrary ways in which we categorize people so as to keep them in the little boxes we have created for them. The Song then becomes perhaps the first of the many sections of Scripture which challenge us to see people for what they are and to treat them all as brothers and sisters, if not in Christ then at least in our common ancestry through Adam and Eve.
At the fancy wedding, Paul, the young pastor, apparently found the words he needed to express his human passion and he did so in a way which frightened those who keep desire at arm’s length. He may also have discovered that the Song of Solomon, often called the Greatest of Songs, lifts the soul beyond the ‘thou shalts and thou shalt nots’ of our pedestrian lives and gives us courage to confront and challenge the barriers that limit women and the assumptions that limit all who are different.
Perhaps Paul will read from the Song with less conviction the next time. Perhaps he will also choose to read passages from the Song on occasions of compelling social action.
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