7 Apr 2012

Holy of Holies: Returning to Eden 3 – The Song of all Songs or Just a Silly Little Love Song

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Contemporary Ethics, Hebrew Bible, Ministry, Song of Songs

For in all the world there is nothing equal to the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings [i.e. Scriptures] are Holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” (Rabbi Akiba, Mishnah, Yadaim 3.5)

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs. But I look around me and I see it isn’t so … Love isn’t silly at all.” (Paul McCartney)

Read Returning to Eden 1 – Song of Songs Here
Read Returning to Eden 2 – A History of Denying Sexuality

How Important is this Song?

When was the last time you read through that small book of 117 verses called the Song of Songs? Have you ever actually studied it? Are you a preacher, when was the last time you preached through, or even from, the Song? When you have an important biblical question how often to you turn to the Song? Ever?

I must confess! I have attended Churches of Christ all of my life and have ministered among them for half of my life and I have never heard a sermon from this book and I have never preached one. I designed a class once called Spirituality and Sexuality from the Song but was not allowed to teach it. I have heard that the book needs to be studied by the newly married or used in premarital counseling. I don’t deny its utility in either of those settings but there is nothing in the Song that suggests it was intended for the young or the newly married.

How important is the Song of Songs in the canon? Has our theology been skewed because we do not take it seriously as the Word of God … I mean when churches actually forbid reading it then it is clear that it is not valued as the Word of God.

An example is J. W. McGarvey one of the greatest biblical scholars to come out of the Stone-Campbell Movement. McGarvey published a small Guide to Bible Study near the end of the 19th century. The book is, in my opinion, largely useless (I know I am being harsh). The notes are lacking and unhelpful. However the book was used by McGarvey in training preachers and church leaders. It was important to JWM to pay careful attention which “dispensation” a book or text is in. McGarvey at times simply does not know what to do with the “Old Testament.” He is bewildered by some of the books. I call attention to his comments on the Song of Songs:

The Song of Songs. The title which this short poem assigns itself is, ‘The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s’ (i.1). If there is any book in the Bible which found a place in it by a mistake or misjudgment of those who put the inspired book together, it must be this; for it is so totally unlike all the rest that it is difficult to see what connection it can have with the general design of the whole. Many interpreters have affected to find in it a parabolic meaning, and even a foreshadowing of the love of the Church of Christ; while others have regarded it as nothing more than a love-song with a very obscure connection of thought. According to either view it has afforded little edification to the great majority of Bible readers; and unless some significance can be found in it hereafter which has not yet been pointed out, it will continue to be but little read, and of but little practical value.”

This is McGarvey’s entire interpretation of the Song and it is wholly negative. In fact the book is probably in the Bible by accident! But this is in line with his evaluation of the OT as a whole.

Another Point of View

The Bible itself calls our book shir ha-shirim. The Song of all songs. The most excellent song. Was Rabbi Akiba correct that the Song is worth all the other scripture? Clearly we have not read it that way in our modern setting. But interestingly the church has historically read it that way!

Bernard of Clairvaux (AD 1090-1153) was without a doubt the most influential churchman of the twelfth century. A complex man who became a monk after a secular life. He spent 18 years studying and preaching the Song. He does not attempt to explain the words of the Song rather he tries to explain and experience life through the Song.

For Bernard there nothing accidental about any portion of the Bible. If it is there the Spirit had a reason for putting it there. For this reason the Monk of Clairvaux took with the utmost seriousness the title of the book. Before one could enter into the Song one must first have mastered the doctrine of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs … their order in the Bible being of divine appointment. The book is profound because it is the “artistry of the Spirit.”

So what shall we do? Shall we by-pass the title? No, not even one iota may be omitted …” How does Bernard proceed to exegete the title? I quote at length

“the title is not simply the word ‘Song,’ but ‘Song of Songs,’ a detail not without significance. For though I have read many songs in the Scriptures, I cannot recall any that bear such a name. Israel chanted a song to Yahweh celebrating his escape from the sword and the tyranny of Pharaoh, and the twofold good fortune that simultaneously liberated and avenged him in the Red Sea. Yet even though chanted, this has not been called a ‘Song of Songs’; Scripture, if my memory serves me right, introduces it with the words: ‘Israel sang this song in honor of Yahweh.” Song poured from the lips of Deborah, from Judith, of the mother of Samuel, of several of the prophets, yet none of these songs is styled a ‘Song of Songs.‘” …[1]

For Bernard our book is called the Song of Songs precisely because that is what it is. It is, in the words of Akiba, the Holy of Holies. Bernard would be appalled at McGarvey’s failure to grasp the profound Spirituality of his sermon text of eighteen years.

Bernard was Right, McGarvey was Wrong

What if we take the Song seriously? What if it really is the Word of God? What happens? Several things actually. The Song forces us to take with absolute seriousness the fact that God created humans as embodied beings, it forces us to take seriously that creation – including the body – is not simply a necessary evil but a holy Good! The Song forces us by smacking us between the eyes that neo-Platonic “spirituality” leads to the worst sort of aberrations possible and that biblical Spirituality is embodied.

The Song of Songs, beyond the mere words of the text, forces us to wrestle with fundamental worldview issues. Bernard instinctively knew that to grasp the Song one needed to wrestle with Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. While I disagree with the why of wrestling with them I agree that the Song of Songs shares a profound connection with those two books. What I mean is the Song is the melody of the profound biblical doctrine of creation that is the very ink used in writing Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.

Contrary to pagan forms of Spirituality the Song of Songs does not simply speak of bodies it celebrates even naked bodies! Platonism would have us believe that our bodies and the “material” they are made of are something we long to be delivered from. The Song says the life God intended, and intends, is the good life in the good body he made.

Creation matters. Beauty matters. Sexuality matters. The Song connects to creation, it connects us to beauty, it connects us – at the deepest possible level – with fellow creatures, it is God’s vision of what relationships should be. The prophets dreamed of a day when the new heavens and new earth would come through God’s final redemptive act. The Song envisions that the experience of that Edenic love should be ours in our marriage in the here and the now.

So I end where I began: How important is the Song OF Songs …? Flame of Yahweh? or just a Silly Little Love Song …?


1] All quotations from Bernard come from The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux: Song of Songs I, translated by Kilian Walsh with an introduction by M. Corneille Halflants (Kalamazoo, MI:: Cistercian Publications 1971), 4

2 Responses to “Holy of Holies: Returning to Eden 3 – The Song of all Songs or Just a Silly Little Love Song”

  1. Jenny Says:

    As a kid, I vaguely remember someone pointing out that no one would ever do a sermon on the book. I’ve heard a few verses quoted though since then, usually in sermons on the topic of marriage. At any rate, I think the reason why Christians find it uncomfortable is that we continue to insist that it’s a type of Christ and the Church, but there really aren’t good pieces of evidence for making that assumption. That is, we don’t see Jesus or Paul or someone saying that the Song of Songs is to be interpreted as such.

  2. Ray Downen Says:

    God made us. He made us humans with desires for sexual intimacy. It was necessary to explain that unnatural sexual practice was wrong. We should not forget that natural sexual longings are innately part of God’s creation. That’s how God made us. It’s natural and right for a man to share sex with a woman, pleasing both and expecting a “natural” outcome of the mating by children being created. Solomon has it right!

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